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Terence O'Donnell, writer, noted historian, dies at 76
Former colleagues praise the skill and insight the Portland native exhibited in books about Oregon, Iran and other subjects

By Harry Esteve
The Oregonian
Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Terence O'Donnell, writer and pre-eminent Oregon historian, died Monday at home in Portland. He was 76 and had been ill since surgery in December.

O'Donnell wrote extensively about Oregon's past, including works on Native American tribes, Timberline Lodge and Cannon Beach. His knowledge of the state came in part from 20 years' work at the Oregon Historical Society.

He was perhaps best known for his 1980 book "Garden of the Brave in War: Recollections of Iran," which chronicled his 15 years living and working in the Middle Eastern country. Though not a best seller, the book won strong reviews and was included on a list of recommended reading for President Reagan when he took office.

Critics uniformly praised O'Donnell for his power of observation and his eloquent but blunt assessments of the impact of history. Although he took pains to note the beauty and complexity of the people and places he wrote about, he didn't shrink from describing the turbulence of the times.

"People looking back like to make their past a happy one," he said in a recent interview. "Americans in particular are reluctant to acknowledge tragedy. We just don't like it."

Thomas Vaughan, former director of the historical center who recruited O'Donnell to work there in the early 1970s, said: "He wrote with enormous skill and insight about affairs in the Middle East. He had a great respect and understanding and pity for the people there."

Vaughan teamed up with O'Donnell to write and publish "Portland: An Informal History and Guide," gleaned in part from O'Donnell's frequent long walks through the city.

O'Donnell received a small burst of national attention when The New York Times picked up on one of his typically trenchant quotes, this one about the West Coast's three "sister" cities: "San Francisco grew up as the debutante, Seattle the tart and Portland the spinster."

Hobbled in his later years by an old injury, O'Donnell used a walking stick and cut a familiar figure on daily sojourns through and along Portland's Park Blocks, where he lived. He also kept a Seaview, Wash., beach house -- which he dubbed Crank's Roost -- and spent much of his time walking along the surf line.

"He is just the most delightful gentleman, and 'gentleman' is really the word for Terence," said Joan Sullivan, a friend from Portland. Besides strolling, one of his favorite activities was telling stories, Sullivan said.

"What I love about Terence is he gets very amused at his own stories," she said. "As he tells them, he starts chuckling."

O'Donnell was born Oct. 21, 1924, in Portland. He was bedridden with osteomyelitis, a bone infection, for most of his youth, said his nephew, Michael Freeman. A nurse who was hired to care for him as he died -- it was assumed he would -- encouraged him to read and write stories, kindling his intellectual enthusiasm, Freeman said.

He received a bachelor of science degree from the University of Chicago and later a master's degree from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

A passionate traveler, O'Donnell roamed Europe and the Middle East after college and received three Fulbright teaching grants. He spent seven years operating a U.S. Information Agency cultural center in Isfahan, Iran, then moved to a rural part of the country to run a farm.

His observations of the culture, the people and the contradictions of Iranian life became the subject of "Garden of the Brave in War." The book did not delve deeply into the politics of the upheaval and revolution that occurred shortly after O'Donnell left Iran. Instead, it focused on the people he came to know on his pomegranate orchard.

"You can only understand the politics of a country if you understand the character of its people," O'Donnell told a reporter shortly before Ticknor & Fields, a New York publisher, released the book.

Other books by O'Donnell include "Seven Shades of Memory: Stories of Old Iran"; "That Balance So Rare: The Story of Oregon"; "Cannon Beach: A Place by the Sea"; "Talking on Paper: An Anthology of Oregon Letters and Diaries"; and "An Arrow in the Earth: General Joel Palmer and the Indians of Oregon."

O'Donnell also penned a brief history of the state that appeared in the Oregon Blue Book, the state's official political and historical almanac, and his words are etched in the granite of the Oregon Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial in Hoyt Arboretum.

A onetime copy boy for The Oregonian, O'Donnell recently had the opportunity to help out his former employer by offering his insight to reporters working on a series of articles about 150 years of Oregon history. The series was later compiled in a book, "The Oregon Story."

O'Donnell never married and has no children. He is survived by a brother, Robert O'Donnell of Spokane, and a sister, Rosemary Freeman of Portland.

Gregg R.S. Blesch of The Oregonian staff contributed to this report. You can reach Harry Esteve at 503-221-8226 or by e-mail at


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