Dan O’Donnell, Lincoln Park hardware store owner who made Irish students’ eyes smile, has died
He helped about 16,000 Irish students visiting Chicago on summer visas. “I will never forget what he and his family did for us,” one said.
Three days after he arrived in Chicago, Colin Irwin thought he’d have to resort to sleeping on North Avenue Beach.
He was running out of money, couldn’t afford a hotel, and the hostel he’d counted on was all booked.
Enter Dan O’Donnell, the owner of Armitage Hardware. A son of Irish immigrants, he was also a de facto social worker, job counselor and foster father to Irwin and the hundreds of other Irish college students who flock to Chicago each summer under the J-1 temporary visa program, which allows international students to work and study in the United States.
“On our way to the beach, we had received a text from a fellow traveler to go to the Armitage Hardware store and ask for Dan,” Irwin, a native of County Meath who now lives in Ohio, said of what happened in the summer of 2010.
“Whatever doubts I had walking down the narrow, creaky stairs to the basement of the old hardware store were quashed immediately once I reached the bottom and saw the 20 or 30 other J-1 travelers with the same desperate look on their face as we had,” Irwin said. “Within an hour, Dan had arranged a meeting with the bank for us to get a bank account set up, arranged job interviews and then let us use the rental property he had behind the hardware store until we found a place to stay.
“I will never forget what he and his family did for us,” Irwin said. “Our summer went from sleeping on a beach to the summer of a lifetime.”
Mr. O’Donnell, who helped about 16,000 J-1 students, died of a stroke in January in Fort Myers, Florida, where he’d been relaxing and fishing, according to his son Brian, who continues to operate the store. Mr. O’Donnell was 80.
This summer, signs will go up outside his store at 925 W. Armitage Ave. in Lincoln Park to designate the street as Dan O’Donnell Way, according to Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who said: “Dan was the go-to guy in the Armitage-Halsted district. He set the stage by working in, living in and loving his historic buildings.”
His mother Nellie O’Donnell learned to speak Irish in her native Gaeltacht — a Gaelic-speaking region — in Cornamona, County Galway. She worked in the kitchen at Illinois Masonic Hospital and as a maid at the old Edgewater Beach Hotel. His father Daniel O’Donnell was from Eighter Island off the coast of County Donegal and worked as a painter at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Young Dan went to St. Sebastian grade school and the old DePaul Academy High School and worked for a time at Golden Hardware at Belmont Avenue and Clark Street.
He and his future wife Kathleen met at a party.
“He and another friend flipped a coin to ask me to dance,” is how Kathleen O’Donnell remembers it.
“He was so sweet,” she said. “I worked at Columbus Hospital after school, and, during the summer, he would drive around the hospital waiting for me to give me a ride home.”
They would have celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this June.
He started helping J-1 students in the late 1990s when he saw a disconsolate group “sitting on their luggage on Armitage and Bissell,” his son said.
In 2012 — one of the visa program’s busiest summers — the hardware store basement wound up crammed with suitcases.
“We had 37 girls with one bathroom and one shower,” his son said.
Mr. O’Donnell arranged to house them in a convent at St. Teresa of Avila church.
He helped the students find jobs at bars and restaurants and at Lollapalooza.
“Each year, hundreds of kids would find employment through Dan,” said Michael Collins, executive director of Irish Community Services.
In 2009, when J-1 student Keith O’Reilly died of injuries from diving into shallow water off North Avenue Beach, “Dan made arrangements to get his body home,” Mr. O’Donnell’s wife said.
Ian O’Dowd, a former J-1 student, said Mr. O’Donnell changed his life. He and his son Brian “gave me the foundation to start a life here,” said O’Dowd, 32, who works for Crown Cork & Seal in Kankakee and met his American wife Caitlin in Chicago. They have a 2-month-old son, Jack.
When Irish students came to town, “They knew about Dan O’Donnell,” said Galway native Billy Lawless, a Chicago restaurateur and immigration reform advocate who has represented the diaspora in the Irish senate. “When the young Irish had problems and needed help, Dan was always their go-to man.”
A celebration of his life is planned when the pandemic eases. Mr. O’Donnell is also survived by his daughter Erin and son Kevin, sister Sheila DeLattre and six grandchildren.