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Apr 26, 2018 11:28 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Bill O'Donnell Remembered As Devoted Family Man, Community Member, Avid Athlete

May 1, 2018 3:03 PM

Bill O’Donnell, a dedicated member of the East Hampton community known for his lifelong athletic prowess and love of helping others, died on April 23 of sudden heart failure. He was 65.Mr. O’Donnell was described last week by friends and family as a “larger-than-life” figure, both in stature and personality. Outgoing, passionate about helping others, and a devoted husband and father, he was also particularly well-known among the town’s avid athletes.

Mr. O’Donnell was a runner, triathlete, swimmer and surfer, and was “a fixture” at the East Hampton YMCA, according to his longtime friend Southampton Press nature columnist Mike Bottini.

“He was there every day, early in the morning,” Mr. Bottini said. “He loved working out, and he did all the local running races.”

Mr. Bottini added that Mr. O’Donnell once posted a three-hour time in a marathon, and said he was an excellent triathlete. While Mr. O’Donnell had not competed in triathlons in recent years, Mr. Bottini said his friend was planning on doing an Olympic distance triathlon in Montauk in June.

“If you look at his best times in different events, he was an awesome athlete,” Mr. Bottini said.

A shared love of running and swimming—whether in the pool or ocean—brought Mr. O’Donnell and his wife, Diane O’Donnell, together. They met on Fourth of July weekend in 1977, in Montauk. She was 26 years old, a mother of two young children, going through a divorce. He was 23 years old, living in a trailer at Ditch Plains Beach with his surfing buddies.

They met at what is now the Sloppy Tuna, introduced by Ms. O’Donnell’s longtime friend Henrika Conner, and started seeing each other after a night of dancing. Ms. O’Donnell said she thought it would be a summer fling, but he stayed in touch after he returned to Oyster Bay in the fall to finish school at what was then called the State University at Stony Brook, letting her know he was interested in something more. Despite his youth, Ms. O’Donnell said, he was ready and willing to commit to her, and her children.

“It was a really big thing for a young man his age to take on a ready-made family,” she said. “He did a good job. He always took good care of all of us. We were a family right from the beginning. He just wanted to take care of us and make sure we were all happy together.”

Ms. O’Donnell said her husband was widely known around town for his big personality, and she said that was not a persona he put on only in public.

“We used to say we were the loud family,” she said, with a laugh. “Our house had 17 doors, and Bill was an early riser—he was always up at 5 or 5:30 in the morning, and the kids would try to sleep in, especially when they got older, and he would go through the hallways slamming every door behind them, telling them to wake up.”

Ms. O’Donnell added that he’d follow up by shaking down the coals in the old coal stove in the kitchen—which she said he loved—in case the door-slamming didn’t do the trick.

She said her husband was also well-known for his love of singing. She said that when they hired a band for the wedding of their oldest daughter, Lisa Hall, his one stipulation was that the band would allow him to take the microphone for a song. He chose his favorite: Otis Redding’s “Sitting by the Dock of the Bay.”

Mr. O’Donnell was born on April 7, 1953, in Ohio to William and Elyse O’Donnell, and his family eventually made its way to Syosset, where he grew up. He attended Stony Brook University, graduating in 1979, and he started his own landscaping and pool business, O’Donnell Enterprises, a year before graduating. He and the former Diane Rodriguez were married in October 1982.

Mr. O’Donnell made a name for himself in East Hampton as a hard worker and generous friend, according to Mr. Bottini.

“He really loved helping people,” he said. “That was one of his little quirks. He would drop anything to help a friend out. He was like that with his family, too. He had a heart of gold.”

Mr. Bottini added that Mr. O’Donnell helped him make friends and connections in the area when Mr. Bottini moved to the town in 1988. Mr. Bottini joined a Wednesday night running group that met at the East Hampton High School track. The group was led by well-respected track coach Cliff Clark of Shelter Island, and included several talented adult runners and triathletes, including Mr. O’Donnell, Kevin Barry, Barbara Gubbins, Tony Venesina, John Conner and John MacNiven.

“It was a very close-knit group,” Mr. Bottini said, adding that they worked out together on Wednesday nights for 20 years.

Mr. O’Donnell was also a devoted congregant of Most Holy Trinity Church in East Hampton and a founding member of the Old Montauk Athletic Club.

He is survived by his wife, Diane O’Donnell; his children, Caitlin O’Donnell of East Hampton, Natalie Mattson of East Hampton, Lisa Hall of Santa Barbara, California, and James O’Donnell of New York; as well as several siblings, including Elyse O’Donnell of San Rafael, California, Patrick O’Donnell of Atlanta, Georgia, Diane Melli of Sayville, Lindsey O’Donnell of San Rafael, California, Wesley O’Donnell of East Hampton, Donald O’Donnell of Atlanta, and Curtis O’Donnell of Dracut, Massachusetts. He is also survived by five grandchildren.

His survivors plan to scatter his ashes at three of his favorite places: Montauk, Hawaii and Rincon, Puerto Rico.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking for donations to the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association and the Old Montauk Athletic Club.

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