Terence O'Donnell, writer, noted historian, dies at
Former colleagues praise the skill and insight the Portland
native exhibited in books about Oregon, Iran and other subjects
By Harry Esteve
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
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,
"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 firstname.lastname@example.org.