Jack and Larry O'Donnell:
For the love of history
By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist
For brothers Jack and Larry O’Donnell, life is a grand adventure. Whether touring by foot, bicycle, or cruising in a Chevy convertible down Route 66, the two share a passion for history, travel, and learning and show no signs of slowing down.
It may not be a coincidence that, in separate years and circumstances, the two came to live on the same street in Everett’s Norton Grand Historic Overlay District, both in 107-year old homes, no less.
Born and raised in the Everett area, Jack and Larry share a lifetime of memories and knowledge of local history. Larry, eight years older than Jack, traces his interest in history to his childhood fascination with the crumbling remains of neighborhood buildings.
“I’d think, ‘What was here?’” Larry reminisced, “And then someone would show me a picture of the place and I can still remember being excited about it.” When asked why anyone should care about history, Larry replied emphatically, “It tells us who we are.”
For Jack’s part, the story is similar.
“I think we got interested separately. I was just curious about the old things in town,” he said. “There’s something about your home town that gives you that longitudinal look at life that you can’t get anywhere else. The place you grew up in as a child is the way the world came to you.”
Jack and Larry’s parents grew up on Kansas farms and, after surviving the Great Depression, moved to Washington in 1936. Because of their limited opportunities, they placed a high priority on their children getting college degrees.
Larry, the first to attend college, remembered “JC” (Everett Junior College, now Everett Community College) as being the obvious choice after graduating high school in 1955.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to be or what I was going to do, so it was a very easy transition. It was inexpensive, I could live at home, and a lot of my friends were doing the same thing,” he said.
While attending Everett Junior College, Larry realized that he might want to become a teacher.
“I was still close enough to the Depression that I could remember people saying, ‘Be a teacher or a mailman because you’ll have a job during the next Depression,’” he laughed. “I think what I gained by going to Everett Junior College—without really knowing it—was that I could cut it academically. It was a confidence builder in ways that I didn’t understand at the time.”
That confidence boost paid big dividends in Larry’s life. He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University, a master’s in education from the University of Oregon, and did post graduate work at Western Washington University.
Now retired, Larry’s career spans 30 years as a teacher, counselor, vice principal, principal, and director of facilities and planning for Everett School District, as well as 10 years as an educational consultant and three summers as an instructor in Western Washington University’s Department of Education.
He credited learning how to work with people and persistence as being keys to success in life. “Persistence means failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th,” he said.
In 1963, Jack graduated from Everett High School and began attending Everett Junior College for many of the same reasons as his brother. He admitted to floundering along during the early years of college, not knowing what he wanted to do. He eventually transferred to Western Washington University, where he entered the education program.
“Once I stood up and taught, I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” he remarked. “I learned that the instructors at Everett were every bit as competent and cared as much as the professors at Western. When I see kids today that are thinking about going to a local community college, I always encourage them to do it.”
Despite the difference in the years they attended, each remembered the atmosphere at Everett Junior College as congenial and accepting. They both agreed that, to this day, the college fills a need in the Everett community.
“I’ve watched the college progress and grow and I probably appreciate the need for it now more than I did then,” Larry said. “It’s there for so many people: the person who wants to go to college, the one who wants to pick up a particular skill, or the person who simply wants an outlet—maybe they’re retired and want to take a class.”
Jack was quick to agree.
“It’s our college—it’s there for so many people in the community.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Western, Jack was hired by Edmonds School District and spent 30 years teaching students in grades four through eight. He continued his education by doing three years of post graduate work at various colleges and universities and spent nine years teaching at Immaculate Conception/Our Lady of Perpetual Help School in Everett, where he retired in 2006.
Retirement has only given the brothers more time to pursue the interests they love. Both are accomplished authors and speakers and have several published books between them. Their retirement pursuits are enough to tire a person half their ages: Jack is an “urban hiker” and has climbed Mt. Pilchuck, while Larry has run several 10k races, four marathons, and is an active member of the informal “Big Shots” bicycle group, with members ranging in age from 65 to 86 years.
“The 65 year old is a former student of mine from my first year of teaching!” Larry laughed. “I see former students all the time,” he added. “It’s very gratifying.”
Over the years, the O’Donnells have criss-crossed the country together with their families, enjoying time spent together and, as Jack put it, “the American experience.” Their sightseeing adventures include a 1999 “Route 66” junket in Jack’s red ‘68 Chevy convertible and, in 2004, a trip to Kansas re-creating a 1954 family excursion.
Looking back on a lifetime of shared memories, Jack and Larry continue to share their love of history, whether in the form of books, speaking engagements, or participation in local associations.
“I like being connected,” Jack said thoughtfully, while Larry nodded in agreement. “You need to understand what brought us to where we are--you have to care about where you live to care about anything.”