March 05, 2012
By Grant Segall The Plain Dealer

Lakewood–On his way to the top in industry, Kevin O’Donnell paused to bring the Peace Corps to South Korea and save the agency worldwide.

O’Donnell, who led the Peace Corps, Sifco and more, died Feb. 29 at EnnisCourt after a short illness. The two-time widower was 86.

“He was a fantastic mentor,” said Jeff Gotschall, Sifco chairman. “He walked the talk. He wasn’t afraid to do things he asked other people to do.”

In 1966, O’Donnell took his new second wife and their eight children from Fairview Park to Korea. They quickly learned a new language and made new friends.

He told The Plain Dealer a year later, “The Korean, they’re the Irish of Asia: a high-energy people, willing to work hard, learning quickly, amenable to change, possessing a good sense of humor, emotionally outgoing. Guess that’s why I feel at home here.”

He was raised in Cleveland and played football at West High School. Quitting school at 17, he entered a Naval officer’s training program. He was sailing toward the Pacific theater when World War II ended.

He earned a bachelor’s degree from Kenyon College and a master’s from Harvard Business School. Back in Cleveland, he sold for the Steel Improvement and Forge Co., marketed for Booz, Allen & Hamilton and opened U.S. offices for the Canadian-owned Atlas Alloys.

In 1949, he married the unrelated Margaret Ann O’Donnell. He eventually joined a sobriety program, quit smoking, began working out and lost a lot of weight.

In 1965, his wife bore their sixth child and died soon from an aneurysm. He later married Marion Ellen Blydenburgh Patterson. O’Donnell called their marriage and eight cross-adoptions “one of the biggest mergers in local court history.”

In 1966, he read about a mid-career volunteer for the Peace Corps. Two weeks later, the agency hired O’Donnell and gave him a choice of countries. He chose Korea because the agency would be new there and the country was rebuilding impressively.

He oversaw volunteers training teachers, farmers and more. On his own time, he helped start the Cursillo Christian program in Korea, where more than 62,000 people have joined. Water and electricity came and went at times, but his new family felt bonded by the strange surroundings.

In 1970, the O’Donnells moved to Potomac, Md. He became the Peace Corps’ finance director and rose the next year to its top spot. He was also associate director for international affairs at Action, an agency overseeing the Peace Corps.

A Congressional leader tried to slash the Peace Corps’ budget. O’Donnell overcame him partly through a persuasive interview with television’s Eric Severeid.

Following a tradition for volunteers, the director left the Peace Corps after six years. He moved to Lakewood and later Bay Village.

Back at Sifco, O’Donnell rose to president and chief executive officer. He promoted specialty services such as repairs of airplane parts. He expanded operations in China, Brazil, Ireland and elsewhere.

Retiring in 1994, he founded O’Donnell & Associates, a business consulting firm still in the family. He also chaired Whole Health Management and was a director of several corporations, including Ferro and RPM.

He chaired several nonprofits, including the Cleveland Council on World Affairs, the Catholic diocese’s First Friday Club of Cleveland and Indiana’s St. Mary-of-the-Woods College. He also chaired the Cuyahoga County boards of mental retardation and addiction services.

Among many awards were honorary doctorates from Kenyon, Ohio Wesleyan and Korea’s Pusan National University. He was named Cleveland’s Mayo Person of the Year for his ancestral county in Ireland. He had a vacation home on Mayo’s Achill Island and dual citizenship. In his 80s, he visited North Korea with a delegation that started a program to build homes there.

Kevin O’Donnell

1925-2012

Survivors: Children, Kevin Jr. of Campbell, Calif., Susan Dicken of Nederland, Co., Michael of Bratenahl, John of Sherman, Conn., Maura O’Donnell-McCarthy of Mentor, Megan Patton of Fairview Park and Hugh of Bay Village; 17 grandchildren and a great-grandson.

Funeral: 1 p.m. Saturday, March 10, at St. Malachi Catholic Church.

Contributions: EnnisCourt Chapel Fund, 13323 Detroit Ave., Lakewood OH 44107, enniscourt.com, or St. Malachi Catholic Church, 2459 Washington Ave., Cleveland, OH 44113, stmalachi.org/donations.