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McCooey School Nun offered young athlete a shot at life

John O’Donnell (20) of the McCooey Shamrocks and John Barnum (11) of Louisiana High’s Bulldogs battled for possession of the ball in a third-quarter incident of the Louisiana-McCooey game at Hannibal Tuesday night, Feb. 4, 1964, the result being a jump ball. The final score was McCooey 58, Louisiana 48. Courier-Post photo by Otis Howell; courtesy of the Hannibal Free Public Library.

Click here to see more photos of John O'Donnell's family, and their years in Hannibal, Mo.


For the Courier-Post

Hannibal’s downtown served as John O’Donnell’s backyard; Central Park was his playground. He moved to Hannibal as a 7-year-old in 1953, and spent most of his youth living upstairs over his father’s drug store, located on the southwest corner of Fifth and Broadway.

“My father (first) had a pharmacy in Louisiana (Missouri). My mother died when I was 7 of complications from surgery following childbirth. She died unexpectedly,” O’Donnell said.

Following her death, Frank O’Donnell moved his two young sons, John and Jerry, to Hannibal.

“He found a defunct pharmacy at Fifth and Broadway and he resurrected it,” John said. “He eked a living out of it.” When O’Donnell’s Pharmacy first opened its doors, “There was a taxi company upstairs,” John said. When the cab company moved out, “Dad remodeled the upstairs to make living quarters.”

And it was there that father and sons would live until the mid 1960s.

“I remember that pharmacy like yesterday. Dad had a mortar and pestle” on display. “We had an iron ball. We’d take the pestle out” and roll the iron ball in the mortar, making all sorts of racket.

“After a big snow, I’d run across the hill (to the park) get a good run and slide down the incline to the fountain. That was my backyard,” he said, as was the downtown YMCA. “I was so disappointed that the YMCA had fallen into disrepair. That was a big part of my youth.”

Mr. O’Donnell enrolled his sons at McCooey Catholic school, located six blocks to the west of their home - at 11th and Broadway - and remained committed to their Catholic education.

“I wanted to go to Hannibal High School. I had friends I had met on the playground. But my dad was very committed that I stay at McCooey. He had gone to a Catholic school in Monroe City; in the end my father made the right decision.”

John O’Donnell graduated from McCooey in 1964, and the high school closed in 1966. John’s father subsequently moved back to Louisiana, Mo., where he went to work as a pharmacist for the hospital.

“Dad never remarried; raised two boys as a single parent,” John said.


As a child, “I had a low self esteem. I probably had ADD in school; other kids could read it once and remember it; I had to read it two or three times. My senior year (at McCooey) I wasn’t the best student; there were smart kids in my class. I wasn’t a leading scholar in the classroom; I had to work hard just to stand up. Out of 30 in our class, I wasn’t in the top, only made the honor roll a couple of times. I wasn’t going to go to college.” He thought he’d get a job on the railroad, instead.

“The principal, Sister Maria Theresa, was our French teacher. She stopped me in the hall during my senior year, and asked me where I was going to go to college. I told her I didn’t think I was college material.”

“’That’s crazy,’ she said. ‘Of course you’re college material. If you put your energy into your books, I think you can make it. Why don’t you give it a try?’

“No body had ever said that to me before. I went to the library and picked out college catalogues.

“I told my dad I was going to college. He said great. My father didn’t push me in that direction. This nun did push me. She was an incredible lady; very tough, very stern, a bit scary at times. Those nuns could look you in the eye and be a bit intimidating. They always had the kids’ best interests at heart.

“If she hadn’t stopped me in that hallway, engaging with me for 15 seconds; if she hadn’t done that, a whole series of things that happened to me in my life wouldn’t have happened.”

Today, O’Donnell is director of research for OTAcademy, which has 30 centers spread over seven countries, educating adult learners. “I could not have been able to be involved if that nun hadn’t been there at a crossroads for me, asking, ‘What are you going to do with the rest of your life?’”

O’Donnell attended Southwest Missouri State College at Springfield, graduating in 1968.

“I see adult leaners every day; they are very fearful. I tell them this story. You can learn to do this, it is challenging, but you’re going to have to put energy into it. It is a very powerful life transformation; one little piece of information can turn somebody on a dime. It’s never, never too late to turn your life around.”

Do you think you can’t? “The head trash going on between your ears, self talk. There is nothing wrong with working for the railroad, but I know where that would have led me in 30 or 40 years. A gold watch. I’m so happy” I went to college.

Vietnam era

“I got out of college in ‘68 and then qualified for the draft,” he said. Unsure of what to do next, he sought the advice of his father’s friend, William B. Spaun, an attorney with a law office across the street at Fifth and Broadway.

“He used to come in the pharmacy all the time; I always admired him, the way he carried himself. His sports car was the coolest thing in the world. I wasn’t aware of his providence as a lawyer; he was a neighbor who came in the pharmacy.”

O’Donnell said at that stage of his life, he wasn’t politically inclined. “I wasn’t in favor of going to Vietnam or Canada, either. Mr. Spaun provided a solution.

“What you need to do is get a job teaching school in a different state,” Mr. Spaun said. Following that advice, “I was a science major, and got a job in the Milwaukee public school system,” O’Donnell said. “Then I got a call from my father saying a draft notice was in the mail. I was talking to a fellow teacher. He said he could get me into a reserve unit in the Medical Corps in Milwaukee. There was a long waiting list to get into one of those units,” but his friend was able to pull the necessary strings for John’s enlistment.

“If I hadn’t accepted Mr. Spaun’s counsel and direction, I would have ended up in Vietnam,” O’Donnell said.

Growing up Catholic

“We always thought that other kids didn’t like us because we were Catholic,” John O’Donnell said, “sort of a bigotry.

“During the election for the Kennedy campaign, we thought there was no way a Catholic would be elected president. What a shock that was that he would win the election. I always thought there was a bias. It was under the waterline. It wasn’t obvious.”

So when McCooey closed and students enrolled at Hannibal High School for the 1966-67 school year, there was concern.

I was surprised that when the McCooey kids came to HHS that they thrived in that environment. Kerry Mulvihill, Jimmy O’Donnell, Tommy Murphy, Larry Powell, Joe and John Bridges, Dale Pitman, Neal Immegart. They did very, very well in that environment. Those of us who were ahead of them were very proud of them; there were some doubts about how that would mesh. It meshed quite well.

Fond memories

One of John O’Donnell’s fondest memories of Hannibal was the basketball season of 1963-64.

“For both Hannibal High School and McCooey, it was a record event that never in the history of Hannibal had those two schools simultaneously run their conference championships, 50 wins among themselves.

“McCooey started in the mid 1920s. In sports competitions, they rarely won championships, and HHS and McCooey certainly didn’t do it in the same years.

“HHS competed with the likes of Jeff City and Columbia. HHS was in the CEMO conference. If I recall, Jeff City was very powerful, Columbia, Hickman, Sedalia, Mexico and Fulton. There might have been a couple of others. The class that graduated in 1964, wins and losses, was one of best teams HHS ever produced, certainly up through that period of time.

“McCooey played in the Quint City Conference, which has been renamed the Clarence Cannon Conference. Back in the day, McCooey was the smallest school in that conference, consisting of Centralia, Mo., Palmyra, Monroe City, Louisiana, Mark Twain, North Shelbina, and Shelbina, now called South Shelby.

“All of us who played on those teams, competed on the school playgrounds, in pickup games. We all knew one another. We were still kids in a small town who played together in the summertime in sports competitions, and at the YMCA. HHS kids were very proud because they were the bigger school. We (the athletes at McCooey) were the ‘little engine that could.’

“McCooey went on to win the regional championship for their division and I believe Hannibal did the same thing. McCooey’s record was like 26-4; I think HHS had 24 wins. Collectively over 50 wins in a season, never been done before.

“I was the team captain for 1963 and 1964; five starters, Dennis Mulvihill, Tony Viorel, Steve Miller, Frank Crowe and myself.

“Terry Miller was on the team; two years later he went on to be recognized on the All State Basketball Team. He was an outstanding athlete and one of the few basketball players in Hannibal to be named to all state recognition. Among high school basketball, this is a very prestigious award. He graduated in the last graduating class at McCooey and was the leader on that team. He was an underclassman, up and coming sophomore on the 1964 team.

“When we practiced together, you could tell he was real good and had potential that was ultimately recognized two years later. Jimmy O’Donnell, John Bridges, Joe Bridges, Tommy Murphy and Larry Powell, they went on to HHS and excelled in sports in that HHS environment. All of those McCooey members went on to excel at HHS after McCooey closed. McCooey alumn were proud they went on and continued excellence; it was a badge of honor for us.

“Terry Miller was later a coach at the seminary. He was outstanding.”

Looking back

John O’Donnell returns to Hannibal as often as possible, primarily to attend McCooey reunions. He walks along Broadway, looking at the buildings where he delivered newspapers as a boy. “Today I see the buildings falling down. Does anybody care?” he asked.

“Hannibal has been having a slow death for 30 years; I’ve slowly watched the deterioration; it’s like watching a loved one, it’s brutal.

“Downtown was my backyard; when I go downtown and see most of those buildings in decay, I get depressed. I’m always excited to go back (to Hannibal). Then I get anxious to get back on a plane to get back to California,” the state he has called home since 1978.

“Other small towns have gone through reconstruction,” he said. “City fathers take all traffic off Main Street, make a walking promenade with a lot of energy. If you have a bunch of muddy pickup trucks parked along Main Street, that’s not attractive.

“Get out of Hannibal and look at towns that have gone through hard times. Attract capital for renovation. South and North Main street - convert into a plaza. Entertainment. Think of all the people who live in a one -hour drive of Hannibal who would like to go in for some kind of entertainment, food, etc. It would seem to me to be worthwhile.

“They’ve done that in Boulder Colo., beautiful, very vibrant.”

Note: William B. Spaun is the father of this article’s author. John O’Donnell’s brother Jerry died in 2012.

ODonnell Pharmacy 2

The first floor of the building at left housed O’Donnell Drug Store from 1957 until the mid 1960s. The proprietor, Frank O’Donnell, lived on the building’s second floor with his two sons, John and Jerry. The building was torn down to make way for the F&M Bank building, currently at this location. OTIS HOWELL PHOTO/STEVE CHOU COLLECTION

Baseball photo:

John O’Donnell’s younger brother, Jerry, is pictured on the front row, far left, of this youth baseball team photo. CONTRIBUTED/JOHN O’DONNELL


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