Frances O’Donnell, 93; guided her family’s success

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / August 25, 2011

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At 80, Frances O’Donnell retired from managing Falmouth’s historic Coonamessett Inn, not because work was a burden or health a liability.

“I should let a younger person have the job,’’ she told her family.

And that would have been that, except it wasn’t. She simply shifted her work from paid to unpaid and was a hospice volunteer in Falmouth for so long that the patients she was comforting were usually younger by years.

Mrs. O’Donnell, whose clear thinking and intelligence guided a husband through law school and children into careers, died Aug. 14 in her Falmouth home of complications from a stroke earlier this year. She was 93 and formerly lived in Quincy and Dorchester.

“In our family, my mother was the sophisticate,’’ said her son Lawrence O’Donnell Jr. of Santa Monica, Calif., who hosts “The Last Word’’ on MSNBC. “She was the one who always went to the Boston Ballet and took us to the theater. She liked the opera and all sorts of things I could never bring myself around to liking.’’

As matriarch of a family in which work often was conducted in the public spotlight, she emphasized that education was necessary to achieve goals. Limited financial means in her childhood, along with the Great Depression, had kept college beyond her reach, something she determined would not be the case in her own household.

“She was a very strong academic achiever when she went to school, so she was able to help us with homework and academic chores in a way that was very special,’’ her son said. “She was very attentive. I know I could never have achieved anything academically without my mother’s attention and help.’’

Indeed, when her former husband, Lawrence Sr., made the journey from Boston police officer through law school to becoming one of the city’s most colorful defense attorneys, it was with his wife’s assistance.

“No one should mistake law school for an education,’’ their son said. “It is a training school. My mother was, in fact, the most highly educated person in our family in a real way, and had much better academic skills than my father did. And that was open and acknowledged, there was no mystery about it. I mean, she helped my father with his college and law school academic studies. She pushed everyone farther academically than her own position allowed her to go at that time.’’

The oldest of three daughters, Frances Marie Buckley grew up on Creighton Street in North Cambridge. Her mother raised the children and her father worked in factories before becoming a barber.

The years that separated Mrs. O’Donnell from the younger of her two sisters would make a difference in the lives that lay ahead. As with her parents, Mrs. O’Donnell’s education did not extend beyond high school.

“She was born roughly a decade too soon in that sense,’’ her son said. “The world that was open to her younger sisters was very different than the one that was open to my mother. She didn’t get to go to college, but her younger sisters did.’’

Mrs. O’Donnell graduated in 1935 from St. John’s High School in Cambridge.

“She was very much a local girl, but very aware of the world and very eager to explore,’’ her son said.

In 1942, she married Lawrence O’Donnell and they lived for many years in Dorchester.

When he became a lawyer, and their children were in high school, “she went back to work in my father’s office, making things run in a sensible way, keeping the books, and doing what he could never do, which was bring a business organization to it. He was the flamboyant artist at work, as it were. He was not a businessman.’’

Mrs. O’Donnell, on the other hand, “had gotten a very strong business sense from her uncle, who owned a jewelry store, where she worked as a young woman. He taught her basic principles of bookkeeping and running a business.’’

As her husband’s law practice prospered, the family moved to Quincy and bought a second home in Falmouth, in the early 1960s. The couple divorced and Mrs. O’Donnell lived year-round in the Falmouth home beginning in 1984. Mr. O’Donnell died in 2009.

“When I talk about my mother, I know I sound suspiciously positive,’’ her son wrote in an e-mail. “She was smart, funny, kind, modest, creative, adventurous, beautiful. I could go on and on. I know that I sound like I’m saying she is perfect and, of course, no one is perfect. But if she had flaws, I never found them. She was simply the best person I have ever known.’’

A service has been held for Mrs. O’Donnell, who, in addition to Lawrence Jr., leaves three other sons, Michael of Quincy, Kevin of Cohasset, and William of Lowell; a daughter, Mary Frances Downey of Falmouth; nine grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

“She was a mother for 68 years, and a grandmother for 38 years, and a great-grandmother for two years,’’ Lawrence said, “but the thing she was longer than anything in life was a friend for 90 years to her best friend, who lived across the street from her in Cambridge, and who just died within the year.’’

When Peggy Reagan O’Donnell was dating Patrick O’Donnell, she introduced Frances to Patrick’s younger brother, Lawrence.

Peggy and Frances married brothers and became part of each other’s extended families, though they were friends, first and foremost.

“It’s the longest relationship I know, and their lives remained entwined forever,’’ Mrs. O’Donnell’s son said.

“They would always gravitate toward each other in any family gatherings we would have. You could tell each knew what the other was going through. They just always knew everything that was going on, all those details of life. There was never a moment, a month of being out of touch. That never happened. It is as remarkable as it sounds.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at

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