Historical 'Hamlet' novel by Hill's record-setting ex-miler

by Len Lear
Posted 10/30/20

Sometimes I think that when I was not paying attention, City Council must have passed a law mandating that every block in Chestnut Hill must have at least one author or at least one yoga teacher, and …

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Historical 'Hamlet' novel by Hill's record-setting ex-miler

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Sometimes I think that when I was not paying attention, City Council must have passed a law mandating that every block in Chestnut Hill must have at least one author or at least one yoga teacher, and if they do not have either, that block loses federal funding. At least it seems that way to me considering all of the authors and yoga teachers I have met in the neighborhood over the years.

If that is the case, then the 100 block of West Willow Grove Avenue is safe because John O'Donnell, who has had a fascinating career both in academia and the U.S. Navy, has published his fifth book but his first novel, not exactly a page-turner but a real tour de force for history/literature buffs called “Revenge at Elsinore.”

In the book O'Donnell, 74, takes the key characters from Shakespeare's most legendary play — Hamlet, Horatio, Polonius, Claudius, Gertrude, etc. — and places them in a contemporaneous drama. Among other things, it involves Sweden on the brink of declaring independence from Denmark and a plot to kidnap Martin Luther and deliver him to Rome, which loathes Luther for publicly attacking so many practices of the Catholic Church.

“The connections I make could conceivably have happened,” said O'Donnell, who has three history degrees, during an interview in his backyard, overseen by John's 8-year-old Goldendoodle, Gigi. “Martin Luther did live in Sweden for a time … I realize the book may be too dense for the popular reader. I basically wrote it for myself and self-published it. For four years I looked for an agent, but reputable publishing houses have been taken over by Disney and Time Warner.

“Agents told me, 'You're in your 70s. If you were in your 30s, maybe we could publish it because it takes three years to get name recognition, so if you were much younger, that could conceivably happen.' They give no credit for the books I had previously written because they were not fiction. I am happy I did it, though. 'Revenge' does have some very good reviews on amazon. It took me four years to research and write the book and then a few more years trying to get an agent.”

O'Donnell grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, in a lower-middle-class rowhouse neighborhood and went to a strict Catholic school. His father was an accountant for Dupont. “In my neighborhood,” he said, “a mixed marriage was one between an Irish Catholic and an Italian Catholic.”

O'Donnell earned a BA and MA from the University of Delaware, both in history, and a doctorate degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania. His doctoral thesis, “The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870-1920,” was turned into a book published by New York University Press that was essentially a history of Academic Psychology.

O'Donnell taught at Penn and the University of Delaware. He was a visiting professor at SUNY Buffalo, Rutgers New Brunswick and the University of Science. “The problem was that these were one-year jobs. There were no long-term teaching jobs in academia at the time (1970), and  I wasn't going to keep taking one-year jobs all over the U.S. My wife was teaching special ed in lower grades at the time, and it would not have been fair to keep her moving to another city every year.”

So O'Donnell made a sharp U-turn and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, which obviously knew they had a very smart fellow on their hands, so they sent him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for one year of intensive instruction in the Russian language. He was then attached to the U.S. Naval Security Group as a Russian “communications technician.”

He was then sent to Kami Seya, Japan, south of Tokyo, in a refitted WWII Japanese underground torpedo factory (to protect it from U.S. bombing runs).  Kami Seya is the base from which in the year prior to John's arrival, the crew of the spy ship USS Pueblo departed on their ill-fated voyage. (The spy ship was attacked by North Korean forces, and 83 crew members were taken prisoner.)

By his own definition, O'Donnell was a “spy,” that is, he listened covertly to phone conversations by high-ranking Russian officials. (This was during the Vietnam War.) When I asked what exactly he had found out from spying on these phone calls, he said, “Can you keep a secret?” I said, “Yes.” He replied, “So can I.”  

After his military service, O'Donnell returned to study and obtain his graduate degrees. He became the Alumni Director at the University of Delaware in the mid-1980s, Executive Director of the Philadelphia College of Physicians from 1986 to 1995 as well as a series of Directorships and Trusteeships at major Philadelphia area institutions.

He finally “burned out” and started the Contemporary History Company in 1998, which is still in existence. The company has been hired by large non-profit institutions to write books about the histories of those institutions. Each book took about a year-and-half to research and write. “I felt I could strengthen an organization by enhancing corporate memory (with these books). The people who know their history the most make the fewest mistakes.”

O'Donnell's other claim to fame goes way back to his undergraduate days at the University of Delaware, where he set the school record by running a 4-minute, 11-second mile, which was not broken until 50 years later. His final race for the invitational mile at the Armed Forces Championships in 1967 was even faster — 4 minutes and 9 seconds. He also won the mile-and-a-half run at the Division II NCAA Eastern Regional Championships.

For more information, visit RevengeAtElsinore.com. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com

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