February 12, 2008
In Memorium: Bill O'Donovan

bill o donovan
Bill and Jane with young Chaplain

Word came a few nights ago that my buddy, Bill O'Donovan, had departed this life. I am sad. Bill was one of those guys that you thought would live forever.

I first got to know Bill when I was a pastor at the Presidio. He was a retired Army Colonel and lawyer who had started out as an infantryman in the Big War. In fact, it was not hard to imagine Bill right out of central casting ahead of John Wayne.

Bill was an infantry company commander who was in many fierce battles in the South Pacific. He earned the medals like so many of the greatest generation.Bill had thousands of stories and I loved to listen. He told one about jumping in a foxhole full of snakes- one he loved to tell.

The one story I remember most is one of great coincidence. Bill had written a very poignant letter to the family of one of his enlisted guys, attempting to comfort them in their loss.

Forty years or so later, he was at a function in San Francisco, having become a successful Army and civilian attorney, when the featured speaker referenced an O'Donovan that had written this wonderful letter to his grandmother- a letter that had gone a long way in sustaining her throughout the war.

The grandson had saved it as a cherished possession. Imagine his surprise when he met Bill. To the Colonel, such coincidences were really not chance at all, but moments to savor.

Bill was a stalward at the 11:00 am service, along with his wife, Jane. He loved to be around the military-to smell them he would say.

What an inspiration! When I was in Korea and felt that I wanted to begin an organization for Vietnam vets to help Vietnamese kids and Amerasian children( children of American fathers/Asian mothers, often ostracized in their native country) who had come to America, Bill encouraged me. He felt we all had some collective guilt in running out and leaving the Vietnamese with empty promises.

Although he would never own up to it, Bill was one of the movers and shakers in developing the policy of allowing the Vietnamese who had helped us come to America. During that time, I remember the news accounts which were highly critical of the policy.

Bill and I were watching as the planes landed from Vietnam and the women and children getting on and off buses. I will never forget what the Colonel said: "if that (meaning the Vietnamese women and children arriving in America) doesn't melt hearts, then nothing will." It did and any opposition to the policy faded away. Bill was not in the least surprised. He was a great American patriot. "I have faith in the Spirit of America," he would say.

The Colonel contributed. It was who Bill was. He touched lives. Bill became the treasurer for our fledgling non-profit, Vietnam Vets Southeast Asian Children's Project. It was also Bill who jokingly said, "I don't think our organization is needed." We discovered quickly that of all the immigrant groups, the Vietnamese needed the least help. In San Francisco, at least, every kid had three paper routes; and, after six months, they were speaking better English than most of us.

When I was stationed at the Presidio, Bill and I would hang out at Liverpool Lil's. We met there almost every week. When I went to Arizona for an assignment, I bought a print of Liverpool Lil's and gave it to him.

Bill and Jane lived on Divisadero Street in a great section of San Francisco called Cow Hollow, They were the epitome of good "old Army" hosts. It was all silverware and elegance all the time.

What always fascinated me about Bill, among so many things, was the fact that he constantly broached the subject of perceived age barriers. Forever young, he loved chaplains and was as comfortable with the young guys as the old ones.

To say that Bill was a renaissance man is somewhat of an understatement. For those who have seen my favorite TV miniseries or read the book, Lonesome Dove, Bill is without a doubt, Gus, the perpetual and ubiquitous renaissance man.

Bill would say the same as Gus: "Dust to dust. Lets the rest of us go on to Montana."... "It's not dying I'm talking about, it's living."

My world is not the same without Bill. But, I will have to say that I have comfort in something Bill said over and over:

"Every day has been a gift." The Colonel was a gift. JA

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