December 7, 1941 Francis Xavier O'Donnell Will Last In Greatness

December 7, 1941 Francis Xavier O'Donnell Will Last In Greatness

Going to sailing school in Belmont Harbor in Chicago in the 1970’s as a youth, there was a man who maintained the sailboats we kids trashed from high usage.  He worked quietly, but knew everything that was going on.  He had that ruddy Irish complexion, those Irish steel blue eyes, black eyebrows and silver hair.  You’ve seen this same face on many Irish men.

Frank was my friend, but way more than that.  He was one of three people I looked up to as a lad who could do anything, and always do it right.  He lived aboard a barge with a two story building on top, a clubhouse for Chicago Yacht Club, which he also maintained.  In those days the harbor was wide open to the Lake and when strong winds pointed  into the harbor with big waves, that thing would roll from side to side fairly wildly.

Frank would wake up and hear the piano on wheels banging from rolling side to side a distance of 50′ on the barge.  He would go upstairs and literally lasso the piano and each time it rolled passed, cinch up the line some more until he had it tied firmly to the steel post.  A few times the anchor chains on the barge snapped (these chains were really massive).  Once it was one chain away from floating free.  There wasn’t much any one man could do against the forces of nature.

If you knew Frank, you knew Hownk.  At first he fed some ducks in the harbor, then the ducks came up onto the grounds where he continued to feed them.  The club was kind to allow him to have these as pets.  He built a ramp so they could go up and down to the water.  Then he built a shelter for them in winter, plywood on top and three sides with a plexiglass fourth side to see them, with a heat lamp inside.  And Frank would talk to the ducks, saying “Hownk.”  And all of us would say Hownk to Frank, the ducks, and each other.

Frank was the resource of everything – advice, mechanics, electrics, fiberglass repair, gelcoat repair, rigging, plumbing, you name it.  He knew everything.  He was my mentor when I worked on a 40′ sailboat in the harbor in 1975 and 1976 after I aged out of sailing school.  He was great to hang out with, a real inspiration.


Frank was a Navy man, while I don’t know his rank, he was the assistant to the captain of one of the warships anchored in Pearl Harbor.  He was driving a small powerboat taking the Captain from the ship to the shore when the bombs started falling and exploding.  The Captain said to Frank, “Turn around and go back.”  Frank complied.  As they watched their ship get hit with fire burning everywhere, the Captain said, “Turn around and go to shore.”  Frank complied.  As soon as they were at the dock, both jumped off and started running as fast as they could.  The Captain shouted to Frank, “Go back and tie up the powerboat.”  Frank said, “F*** You!” and kept running.

As the two kept running, all Frank could think about was that his military career was over.  For having said what he said to a Captain, a superior officer, for violating a Commanding Officer’s command, he would be brought up on charges, receive a Court Martial, spend some time in the brig, and receive a dishonorable discharge.  Frank was never proud of this moment.

Frank had the luck of the Irish, and the Captain never said a word to him about this.

You meet some great people sailing, and get to know them well.  In my years with Frank, I never heard him say a bad word other than this one time in this story.  In his retirement Frank moved to California to live with his son Johnny.  Later on he passed away.   I miss Frank.

Update 12/9/14 per Paul Hinze:
If my memory is correct Frank X. ODonnell was a bosun’s mate on the battleship West Virginia, he retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant JG.

A comment Frank said was that it would have been a short war for him had he tied up the Captain’s gig (boat). All the “haw” was because his hearing was bad no ear protection when the big guns were fired.


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