Longtime ABC News radio correspondent Tim O’Donnell died in December 2000, 10 days after a massive heart attack.
His outstanding career in radio included 32 years at ABC. After he died, many colleagues called him “the consummate professional.”
Dave Barrett, news director for the Fox Radio Network, recalled being hired at ABC at 27 – an age and an experience level at which one can feel intimidated.
“With 30 days’ actual newscasting experience, I had a lot to learn,” he said. “Tim helped me learn how things worked at ABC. I watched and learned – especially how not to panic during a breaking story.”
Barrett said O’Donnell was a master at finding stories that were a bit over the edge, and writing them so they would be acceptable to a mass audience.
“He’d rewrite a story he’d used as a kicker on his newscast into an ‘after-school spot,’ record it, and of course, it would always get used.”
Barrett said O’Donnell’s sense of humor kept people loose in the ABC newsroom.
“When someone would state something ridiculously obvious in putting together a story, Tim would call out, ‘Thanks, and welcome to the News Team!'”
Peter Salinger, director of News Coverage for ABC Radio, worked closely with him for almost 30 years.
“He was someone people looked up to, because he knew news, and he got along with people so well. People really gravitated to him, and he liked to talk about different things, not just the news, but also restaurants, music, politics, TV shows.”
Veteran New York City newsman Bob Gibson, now with WOR(AM), worked with O’Donnell at ABC. They also attended the now-defunct New York Institute of Technology together in the early 1960s.
“He was fun to be in class with, and you knew he was going to have a great on-air career. Everyone wanted Tim to be on camera for his or her project.”
Gibson said O’Donnell knew he wasn’t perfect. He recalled O’Donnell’s first night on the air as a WPIX(FM) news anchor, when he signed off, mistakenly, “Tim O’Donnell in the WPIX newsdesk,” instead of on, then went home to his roommates to joke about it.
“We’d sit around between classes, talk about radio, read the trades, and visit radio stations. He loved radio.”
CNBC Anchor Ted David worked with Tim at ABC during the 1970s and ’80s. In 1985, David learned that he was being let go.
“Tim O’Donnell was not only the first and most persistent to tell me that another, better door would open, but in the final weeks of December, he took up a collection among the newsroom,” David said. “He bought me a Sony Watchman, which he knew I had designs on. He also circulated a card on which he got just about everyone in the newsroom to write something kind or touching or funny.”
David still has the Watchman and the card.
“They are among the most cherished things that reside in my top dresser drawer.”
Always at the forefront
Former ABC and CBS News correspondent Doug Poling was part of the group hired at ABC when it switched to its then-revolutionary four-network operation in 1968. Tim O’Donnell was also in that group.
Poling called him “a solid guy. Friendly, easy-going, polite, a little on the quiet side, but with a great sense of humor … always liked a laugh and a joke, smiled a lot … he had that leprechaun, Irish grin … and he was also good at what he did.”
WABC(AM) radio anchor George Weber’s shift coincided with O’Donnell’s on the network weekday afternoons. They never met face to face, but Weber said they spoke almost daily.
“I use to get so ticked that he’d steal my local lead and put it in his network newscast. Just about every day, I’d call him up and check with him to see if he was ‘stealing’ my lead. He used to look at it the other way – that I was stealing his lead. He was a fine anchor and a nice guy, too.”
Gary Nunn, ABC News correspondent, remembered O’Donnell as a regular guy.
“If he had an inkling of an ego, Tim kept it on deep background. While Tim worked most of his professional life in NYC, his Midwestern roots were never more than an arm’s length. He was a good and decent man … a nice guy who finished first as a husband, father and a professional newsman.”
As a dad
Nunn recalled a more personal side. “He was a wonderful father to his sons; Tim, a graphic artist, and Kevin, a professional drummer. He helped raise his sons with a positive, steady hand. When Kevin went on tour with his bands, Tim and his wife, Eileen, would make time in their schedules to catch as many gigs as possible.
“It didn’t matter if they were the only people over 20 at the show. He never took his eye or ear off Kevin. He was their son and he could drum no wrong.”
Nunn said O’Donnell’s passions also included food.
“Tim was a gourmand, spending time, effort and often hefty money on a restaurant meal … enjoying food almost as an art form … dissecting the tastes, smells and ambiance. And if the service was bad, you’d heard that too. He could have been an excellent restaurant reviewer.”
ABC Radio correspondent Steve Taylor recalls early days as a free-lancer for the network in Los Angeles.
“Tim O’Donnell was the AFTRA shop steward, and I was the only free-lancer in L.A. From 3,000 miles away, Tim took time and trouble to make sure I knew what was going on.”
ABC correspondent Richard Davies said O’Donnell cared more than most people about getting his facts right.
“He could have been glib or cynical, but was neither – he chose his words carefully. And when he gave you a compliment, it had a special meaning, because it wasn’t made lightly.”
Davies also said that O’Donnell had a memorable sense of humor.
“Tim was funny. The dry cackle of his laugh and that incredulous look when someone blurted out a foolish remark are fond memories that I have.”
ABC Correspondent Tim Scheld said Tim was great to work with from the field.
“He was always flexible and never afraid to tell a reporter exactly what he wanted in a newscast. What I loved about his work was his ability to pick out a slice of life and turn it into a spot.
“He had the ability to take an interesting or funny story that was so keen, listenable, to the point and/or funny, and write a spot that stations couldn’t help but keep an eye out for them and run them.”