2007.02.21: February 21, 2007: Headlines: Directors - O'Donnell: Staff: COS - Korea: Cleveland Free Times: Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps as First Country Director for Korea

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Directors of the Peace Corps: Kevin O'Donnell: January 23, 2005: Index: PCOL Exclusive: Peace Corps Directors - O'Donnell : 2007.02.14: February 14, 2007: Headlines: Directors - O'Donnell: COS - Korea: COS - Nepal: COS - Honduras: Peace Corps Press Release: Son and Granddaughter of Peace Corps Director Kevin O'Donnell are Peace Corps Volunteers : 2007.02.21: February 21, 2007: Headlines: Directors - O'Donnell: Staff: COS - Korea: Cleveland Free Times: Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps as First Country Director for Korea

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Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps as First Country Director for Korea

Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps as First Country Director for Korea

Just after Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968 and the U.S. bombed Cambodia in 1969, Kevin's group had grown to 300 volunteers, "and they were pissed at our government for the war, and they really wanted to make a statement, so they decided it would be best to march on the U.S. embassy in South Korea." Red flags went up. "I sat down with them and said, "Listen, what you should do is put together a delegation, and go to the various pockets of volunteers to have them sign petitions, then select a few of them to go to Congress and tell them what they're thinking over here.' I told them that I'd pick up the tab. I'd rather have them doing that than demonstrating on the streets of Seoul. That would have been a mess." He's proud of the results too, however miniscule in altering the big picture. The delegation presented its signatures and views to congressional committees. The media shone a light, however small. "That was diffusing something, but being able to make something positive of it, where they felt like they were getting something out of it," Kevin says. "I really hope I was never a bureaucrat."

Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps as First Country Director for Korea

Kevin O'Donnell Helped Shape the Peace Corps For Three Generations.

By Dan Harkins E-mail

Caption: Family matters - Megan O'Donnell, 4, took the first immunizations on her family's Peace Corps journey to South Korea in 1966.

Kevin O'Donnell ambles to the door of his 29th floor office in the posh Winton Place on Lakewood's Gold Coast, his blue eyes anchoring thick hairy brows. He is dressed like he's been working all day, in gray slacks and a button-down shirt, even though he's technically been retired for 16 years. A solid grip speaks to the thousands of deals he's made in his lifetime, whether in the pursuit of money or the elusive goal of spreading peace.

When he was a young executive, it was go, go, go with no thought to giving back. But Kevin soon learned that brokering the deal was only half of what made his life valuable. The Peace Corps taught him what the other half was all about. It was an education that would take him to the very top of the agency at the height of the Vietnam War. It would also lead two succeeding generations of O'Donnells down the very same path. But the journey began with heartache.

Next door to his office is the condominium he and his wife, Ellen, share. All day, he soaks in the broad-windowed view of Cleveland's skyline, a swoop of ice-blue lake, the neighborhood he grew up in around West 105th Street, the manufacturing giant, SIFCO Industries, which he led as CEO for nearly two decades. Looking down, he can't help but think back to when his life almost fell completely apart.

It was in March 1965. His first wife had just died from giving birth to their sixth child, a daughter. The budding executive salesman had nurtured a fierce craving for alcohol by then. It only intensified when faced with raising a big Catholic family alone.

"All this came together at once," he says, staring at the sunset.

He chose to change. He found the strength to leave the bottle on the shelf, sought inner peace through the Catholic Church's Cursillo Movement of personal discovery. Then along came Ellen. They were the same age, had been friends since Kevin and her husband were in the Navy in WWII. And each had just lost a spouse and had kids still to raise. They were married in August of 1965, two broken halves quickly sewn together. Then, in January of 1966, Kevin saw a newspaper story about a local man serving as a Peace Corps administrator in Guatemala.

"This was the first time I learned that people could actually get paid to be in the Peace Corps," he says. "That it wasn't just volunteers. So I wrote this cold letter about my experience in business. I was so naïve."

The bulk of his public-service experience to that point had been restricted to serving as campaign manager for Republican Willard Brown's run for Cleveland mayor, and he noted it proudly in the letter.

"LB Johnson was president at the time," Kevin recalls, laughing. "How I thought that that would matter I don't know."

But they hired him. Now with a new wife, eight children, an MBA from Kenyon College and Harvard University, a short stretch selling steel and marketing American know-how, he was off to give birth to South Korea's Peace Corps contingent as its first country director. He would be tasked with selling a different American commodity than he was used to: hope.

"I'd done well in business," he remembers, "kept getting promoted, but that Cursillo thing, maybe it wasn't an epiphany, but I really started thinking about how I could give something back, how I could really be of service by using my talents for good."

He says that year was both the hardest and most fortunate period of his life.

TO ACCLIMATE to his new home, Kevin liked to compare his roots with that of his host country.

"They told us early that Korea is considered the Ireland of the Orient," Kevin notes. Both had plaintive music, mournful poetry, a seafaring history, strong senses of honor and pride. "And they also love to have a drink now and again."

He started with 100 volunteers in Seoul. He'd stay four years, ushering English teachers into the countryside. Then physical therapists, lawyers, physicists. His job dealt as much with diplomacy as it did with brass tacks.

"It was a wonderful position," he says, "because I was able to work with people that brought this youthful idealism. All I had to do is get them motivated, then get out of the way and let them go."

Since 1961, when the Peace Corps was founded by President John F. Kennedy in direct response to Communist fears and rebellion in Third World nations, 187,000 Americans have volunteered in 139 countries, says spokeswoman Amanda Host. Its mission, as specified in the Peace Corps Act of Congress: "to promote world peace and friendship which shall make available to interested countries and areas of the United States men and women qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower."

Since 9/11, the Corps has experienced a resurgence in applications. In 2005, its membership reached a 30-year-high. Currently, it has 7,749 volunteers 277 from Ohio in 73 countries. Retiring baby boomers are also credited with the spike.

Though being 18 and a citizen are the only stated requirements, host nations typically tell the corps what type of professionals they need, and that typically means college-educated volunteers.


Three generations - Megan (l.) and Kevin (r.), with Allison the day she left for Honduras.

Local newscaster Ted Henry was a volunteer in Paraguay. Former Gov. Bob Taft served in Tanzania. O'Donnell's experience was markedly different.

Just after Bobby Kennedy was killed in 1968 and the U.S. bombed Cambodia in 1969, Kevin's group had grown to 300 volunteers, "and they were pissed at our government for the war, and they really wanted to make a statement, so they decided it would be best to march on the U.S. embassy in South Korea."

Red flags went up. "I sat down with them and said, "Listen, what you should do is put together a delegation, and go to the various pockets of volunteers to have them sign petitions, then select a few of them to go to Congress and tell them what they're thinking over here.' I told them that I'd pick up the tab. I'd rather have them doing that than demonstrating on the streets of Seoul. That would have been a mess."

He's proud of the results too, however miniscule in altering the big picture. The delegation presented its signatures and views to congressional committees. The media shone a light, however small.

"That was diffusing something, but being able to make something positive of it, where they felt like they were getting something out of it," Kevin says. "I really hope I was never a bureaucrat."

"He was always a deal-maker," says his daughter, Megan, who was 4 when the O'Donnells were shipped off to South Korea.

After four years in Seoul, he was offered the job of director of administration and finance in Washington. He brought his family home. In short order, he was made acting deputy director, then, in July 1971, director.

But more struggles were ahead, with Nixon in the White House and conservative Democrats like Sen. Otto Passman openly opposed to foreign aid and hippie causes. Passman said at the time, "If I had three minutes left to live, I'd kill the Peace Corps." He wasn't alone. Nixon called the corps a haven for draft-dodgers. The struggle was memorialized at the time by a cartoonist who drew a sickly dove on life support, while a powerful eagle, medals draped across its chest, asks the little bird if everything's going to be all right.

"We had to fight for every dime," Kevin recalls. During the budget hearings that year, Kevin presented comparisons showing how the corps' $82 million budget amounted to about one-quarter the price for a single jet fighter. But that year he continued to watch his funding stripped away. At year's end, though, Nixon ordered the funds to be transferred to the agency just before Kevin would be forced to pull his contingents out of Africa.

"I couldn't believe it," he says. "Richard Milhous Nixon."

IN 1972, KEVIN brought his big family back to where it all started. SIFCO, for whom he'd worked before the corps, wanted him to be its CEO. It was Megan's turn to serve.

After graduating from Kenyon College and Harvard, she was off in 1984 to the corps' Nepal office and then to the tiny village of Bhojpur. No electricity, no phones. Work to do everywhere. The 44-year-old credits her four years there with having landed her every job she got thereafter. The stories she accrued were always solicited at every interview.

"The thing I tell people a lot is how, in Nepal, distance is measured in time," she says. "It's not kilometers or miles; you say somebody lives 12 hours away because that's how long it's going to take you to walk there through the mountains."

Kevin retired in 1990. His worldliness was good for business, he says, having landed lucrative contracts in South Korea, China and, "because I'm Irish," in Ireland. Yet he can't sit still. He's on several boards, runs a consultancy firm and watches his 15 grandchildren in prideful awe.

On Valentine's Day, just months after she graduated from Oberlin College, Kevin gathered with the family at 22-year-old grandddaughter Allison's house. She had a giant backpack all ready for her journey to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where she'll serve as a health volunteer in a HIV/AIDS and Child Survival project.

Like her grandfather and aunt before her, Allison expects the benefits to be various: "I see Peace Corps service as an important stepping stone for career goals as well as my life goals. Instead of passively reading about public health issues in a book I will proactively learn about them firsthand. That's part of what I want to do with my life."

Kevin knows what she's thinking. She wants to see the world, offer her hand. And she wants the world to see her, too.

"People want to show another face of America," he says. "They want to participate in something that promotes peace. We don't have a department of peace, but we have a department of war. We don't have peace colleges, but we've got war colleges."




Links to Related Topics (Tags):

Headlines: February, 2007; Kevin O'Donnell; Kevin O'Donnell (Director 1971 - 1972); Staff; Peace Corps Korea; Directory of Korea RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Korea RPCVs





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Story Source: Cleveland Free Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Directors - O'Donnell; Staff; COS - Korea

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