TERENCE JOHN O’DONNELL – CIA
Welcome to these pages, which have been prepared so that you may know something of Terry O’Donnell, and the wonderful, joy filled life that was his. Terry’s classmates, teammates, coworkers, friends and family, as well as Terry himself, have provided the information that follows.
Terry was born on September 16, 1933, in the Borough of Manhattan, in New York City. He died on November 17, 1955, near the top of Mt. Charleston, Nevada, in an airplane crash. At the time of the accident, Terry was on official business as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Security Officer. As we now know, Terry and four other CIA Security Officers were traveling with two Lockheed Aircraft employees and two Hycon employees to a top-secret U-2 aircraft test site in a C-54 manned by an Air Force crew of five. At age 22, Terry was the youngest person aboard the ill-fated flight.
Terry would insist that any tribute to him include an acknowledgment of the sacrifice made by the thirteen other men who died with him. He would ask us to remember and pray for the families and friends of those who died with him. There is no question that Terry would tell us to remember the other “Silent Heroes” of that time, the members of the rescue/recovery teams, who risked their lives in going to the crash site.
He would also remind us that during the years since November 1955, many other “Silent Heroes,” living and dead, have protected our freedom, and they too should be remembered. This is the way Terry was in life. Always thinking about other people.
Terry was born to Thomas John and Grace Susan O’Donnell, nee Healy. He was named after his grandfathers, Terence O’Donnell of County Tipperary, Ireland, who married Agnes Lee O’Brien, and John Healy of New York City, who married Alice Gore.
He was the oldest of six children. His sisters are Alice, Grace and Johanna, and his brothers, Thomas and John.
Terry was raised primarily in Parkchester, located in the Bronx, New York, where he and his family began residing in 1940. Parkchester was ten square blocks of high-rise apartment buildings, housing some twelve thousand families. Parkchester was a self-contained community, with bus and subway lines located nearby. Its households were primarily headed by a working father and a mother fully engaged in raising their children. Such was the case with Terry’s family.
The people of Parkchester were primarily working class and came from a variety of ethnic groups and religions. Parkchester was truly a wonderful place to grow up; a place where people looked out for each other, during a time when families shared common values and mutual respect.
Prior to moving to Parkchester, Terry and his family lived on Teller Avenue, also in the Bronx. While living on Teller Avenue, Terry attended All Hollows Grammar School, near Joyce Kilmer Park. Terry received his First Holy Communion in the Chapel of All Hollows, on May 23, 1940.
In 1941, after his family moved to Parkchester, Terry transferred to the Boys’ Department of St. Raymond’s Elementary School, which was within walking distance. While attending St. Raymond’s, he was taught by the LaSalle Christian Brothers. He received a well-rounded education at St. Raymond’s, including religious instruction. When their turn came, all of Terry’s siblings also attended school at St. Raymond’s. Terry, and his family, regularly attended Mass at St. Raymond’s Church.
Terry graduated from St. Raymond’s Elementary School in 1947. In that same year, he began attending Cardinal Hayes High School, located in the Bronx, not far from Yankee Stadium, and about a half hour subway ride from Parkchester. Cardinal Hayes was an all boys’ school and was staffed by dedicated teachers, who were primarily Catholic Brothers and Priests. The motto of Cardinal Hayes High School was, and still is, “For God and Country.” Terry’s well-rounded education at Hayes included religious training and participation in religious, as well as, social activities.
Terry loved sports and while attending Hayes, it was discovered that he was an exceptionally talented swimmer. He joined the Swimming Team and spent a lot of time during the fall and winter months practicing and participating in swim meets. He went on to set school records and win many interscholastic medals throughout his four years at Hayes. He was elected the Captain of the Swimming Team in his senior year and won a scholarship to Fordham University for his swimming ability.
As a student at Cardinal Hayes, Terry advanced in knowledge and maturity. He learned about life, and about God and Country. His high school experience provided him with many opportunities to hone his natural leadership and interpersonal skills. As an athlete, Terry learned many valuable lessons, including self-discipline and perseverance. Typical of comments made by Cardinal Hayes classmates was that of Terence P. Curran, Ph. D., a Professor at Siena College, who, in May 2001, described Terry O’Donnell as “… a star athlete on the swim team and a very nice guy. I remember my shock at hearing of his death in an airplane crash.”
Beginning in the summer of 1949, and continuing each summer through 1954, Terry worked for the City of New York as a lifeguard at Orchard Beach in the Bronx. During the summer, thousands of New Yorkers thronged to the waters of Orchard Beach. The great swimmer that he was, Terry saved the lives of many potential drowning victims and rendered first aid to many others, during those summers. His leadership, maturity and heroism were acknowledged time and again, and resulted in Terry being promoted to the position of Lieutenant of the fifty man lifeguard staff.
Terry would always arrange to take part in the O’Donnell family summer vacation at Trout Lake, near Lake George, in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. He loved to swim and fish in the clean, cool water of that lovely lake, to climb nearby Cat Mountain, and to join in on the hay rides and the square dances. Always the big brother and coach, he would use his time at Trout Lake to give individual swimming lessons to his sisters and brothers, wanted or not!
In 1951, Terry was delighted to have been accepted at Fordham
University, the very highly regarded Jesuit University, located at Rose Hill,
in the Bronx. The motto of Fordham, “Sapientia et Doctrina” (“Wisdom and
Learning”), encircles a Cross, with the letters “IHS” (“In Hoc Signo”).
Terry’s dad and several uncles had attended Fordham, and in light of Terry
having earned a swimming scholarship, everyone was extra happy and proud.
It was at Fordham, under the tutelage of members of the Society of Jesus, as well as dedicated lay professors, that Terry matured into a true Christian gentleman. His courses included four years of Theology and four years of Philosophy. The disciplined education he received at Fordham was dedicated to the development of the whole man and, at its core, was a fascination with the Person of Jesus Christ Himself, true God, and true Man. Terry’s growth in knowledge and wisdom, as well as his active prayer life, helped him to gain a better understanding of the meaning and purpose of life.
Throughout his four years at Fordham, Terry was a “day hop”, commuting daily by bus between his home in Parkchester and the Fordham Rose Hill Campus, about a half hour away. Throughout those four years, he was a member of the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), as well as the Swimming Team. Under the direction of the Fordham Swimming Coach, John Lyttle, Terry won eleven times in fourteen outings in his senior year alone. In that same year (1954-55), Terry was elected Captain as well as “Most Valuable” member of the Swimming Team.
During his high school and college years, Terry attended many dances, parties, football and basketball games, and proms. He marched with his classmates in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade up New York’s Fifth Avenue. While at Fordham, Terry was involved in other extracurricular activities, including class intramurals and he attended the games of other Fordham teams. He successfully completed several annual American National Red Cross Swimming and New York City Life Guard Training Courses. He was an American Red Cross blood donor and a Swimming Instructor for the Westchester-Bronx Branch of the Young’s Men’s Christian Association (YMCA).
He also took an active part in the parish life of St. Raymond’s Church. During his college years he served as an officer in the Holy Name Society and the Moderator and Coach of the parish Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Swimming Team, which won a Bronx County Championship. In June 2001, Tony Bruno, now a retired civil servant, recalled having been coached by Terry. Bruno said, “Terry will always be remembered by all of us folks that swam on his teams….he was an outstanding person…who gave his all to help the youth in his time….I personally would have loved to tell him how much I have learned from him.”
As Terry’s senior year at Fordham began in 1954, his faith was put to the test. In September of that year, his youngest brother, John, contracted polio, and died a month later at age 6. Terry accepted God’s permissive will in the death of John, believing that God had taken him home to Heaven. Terry resolved to stay close to John by staying close to God, and achieved this through frequent attendance at Mass and reception of Holy Eucharist.
Terry always enjoyed working with young people. The Christian Brothers recognized this and sought after him to join their ranks as a teacher. The New York City Board of Education also wanted to hire Terry as a Teacher of Swimming, and made him a job offer on May 24, 1955. He also knew that on graduation day, June 8, 1955, he would be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Reserve. This, in turn, meant he would have to go on active duty with the Army for two years.
It was no surprise why Terry O’Donnell’s name was submitted to the CIA recruiter who came to Fordham in early 1955, looking for a few good men! The faculty members who recommended Terry knew he was a mature, loyal, intelligent, talented and virtuous person, who could be trusted to protect and defend the United States and its secrets. When the CIA made the job offer to him, he discussed the offer with his parents. Believing that the CIA job was exactly what he wanted, and with the encouragement and prayers of his parents, Terry decided to accept the CIA’s offer. As a result, immediately after graduation, he went to Washington to begin training.
By September 1955, Terry’s family knew that his CIA work had taken him to the Los Angeles area. Letters to and from Terry were sent through a third party. In a letter dated September 5, 1955, Terry wrote to his then eight-year-old sister, Jo, to commend her for becoming a good swimmer. He also wrote, “Jo, I bet you didn’t know that I flew in one of those big planes you see in the sky. Yes, I am going to many interesting places and always by airplane…”
In June 2001, Jim Byrne commented that he first met Terry at “The Ranch,” which is the name project members used to refer to the U-2 test site. Byrne, who was also a CIA Security Officer at the time, said that while at “The Ranch,” they lived in barracks; two to a room, and that Terry was his roommate. Byrne described Terry as an “…ideal roommate, very pleasant, happy and seemed to be always working out – keeping in shape. He was very religious.” Byrne pointed out that there were no religious services at “The Ranch,” but when on periodic work breaks back in the Burbank, California area, Terry would attend Mass. Byrne concluded his remarks by saying the he considers Terry to be a hero and to be one of the nicest persons he has had the honor to know.
Beginning with the evening of November 17, 1955, and continuing throughout the hours and days immediately thereafter, the family and friends of Terry O’Donnell were heart broken and in a state of shock. The first notice of the accident came in a late night phone call from the CIA to Terry’s dad. Terry’s sister Grace ran immediately to the St. Raymond’s Rectory and returned with Father Dan Shea, who prayed with and attempted to consol Terry’s mom and dad.
As the tragic news of the plane crash spread, the outpouring of love and condolences was overwhelming. Final confirmation that all on board were dead did not come for several days. Snow and below freezing weather conditions prevented rescue/recovery teams from getting to the crash site until November 20th. On that day, by shear determination and heroic effort, Air Force Lt. Col. Frank Schwikert, along with the Frehner brothers, Merle and Vivian, and other Air Force and Mounted Posse members, succeeded in getting to the crash site and recovered the bodies of all of the crash victims.
It was not until several days later that a CIA escort officer delivered Terry’s body, in a sealed casket, to Terry’s dad and other family members, at New York’s Penn Station. At that time, the escort officer presented a small cloth bag containing Terry’s Fordham class ring and his Miraculous Medal. Terry was wearing these items at the time of his death. How appropriate that these symbols should serve as the means by which the family would accept that Terry’s body had been returned to them.
Terry’s funeral was held at St. Raymond’s Church on November 28th. Father Shea celebrated the Funeral Mass, which was attended by hundreds of Terry’s friends, neighbors, teachers, priests, swim team and family members. As Terry’s flag draped casket was led from the church to the hearse, he received one last tribute from his friends and swim team members, who formed an Honor Guard along the Church walkway.
Terry’s remains were laid to rest in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery, next to the remains of his brother John and his Grandpa O’Donnell. The grave is not far from where the remains of his Grandma and Grandpa Healy are buried, and a short walk from the grave of another hero, Babe Ruth. As the graveside service came to an end, the flag of a grateful nation was presented to Terry’s parents.
The December 16, 1955 edition of the “Maroon Quill,” a newspaper published by Fordham University, contained an article about Terry’s death. The article made reference to Terry’s many accomplishments and concluded with, “…As an outstanding Catholic, he excelled in humility and was known as a considerate person to all who came in contact with him. It is fitting that such a person should receive the Holy Eucharist on the day of the accident. Although he has departed from this world, we may be well assured that he has reached his eternal goal in heaven.”
Because Terry was held in such high regard, and thought of as an excellent role model, Fordham University decided to honor his memory by presenting an award to its “outstanding athlete of the year.” Beginning in 1956 and continuing to the present, “The Terence J. O’Donnell Memorial Award ” has been presented to the Fordham athlete who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, loyalty, dedication and self-discipline.
It is only human to think of the deaths of Terry and his thirteen companions as a tragic waste, a horrible loss. It is only human to ask the age-old question “Why did God allow this to happen?” In Terry’s case, why should death take one so young, with so much potential, one who was yet to marry and have his own children?
As we travel over life’s tempestuous seas, experiencing the vicissitudes in store for us, sooner or later, if we are truly alive, we seek to know the meaning and purpose of life. We want to know the answers to the ultimate questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?
It is to be hoped that as we look at creation and ourselves, we will come to realize that where there is design, there is a Designer. And if our search leads us to faith in the Eternal Designer, the wisdom contained in the words of Holy Scripture will enable us to realize we are fearfully and wonderfully made; there is a time to be born and a time to die; all our days were written down before one of them came to be; no one can live a moment longer by worrying about it; there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed; we can never be outside the presence of the loving God who causes our very existence; and, we are not to be afraid of that which can kill the body, as we strive to do God’s will. Therefore, we must conclude, as Terry did, that what matters most is not how long our lives are, but rather how well we live our lives!
If you accept the reality of an afterlife, as Terry did, the prophetic words of Dan Maher, St. Raymond’s Holy Name Society Youth Advisor, take on wonderful implications. In the spring of 1956, at a St. Raymond’s Parish Communion Breakfast, Dan, who was well acquainted with Terry, speculated about Terry’s good life and God’s loving mercy. Dan said it could very well be that it was not necessary to pray for Terry, but rather we could pray to him!
What a joyous thought, especially for those who knew Terry as their relative, friend, teammate or as their coach. How lucky for them, because they can clearly picture Terry with hand cupped to mouth, cheering us on to life’s finish line with the words, “Don’t be afraid! God is with you! Come on! You can make it!”
Thanks to his loving parents and relatives, his wonderful teachers, his good friends, his blessed country, and, of course, his loving God, Terry’s faith has enabled him to know the fullness of Life, Truth and Love. For it was in dying to this world that Terry was born to eternal Life, Truth and Love.
Let us therefore conclude with the recommendation that we not look for Terry at the Gate of Heaven Cemetery. But rather that we look for him now among those who love God and do God’s will. Look for him among those who love their fellow man. Look among his relatives, his school and CIA friends. Look among the swim team members and among the O’Donnell Memorial Award recipients. Look for him later at the Heavenly banquet, in the company of his thirteen companions, his family, friends, team members and teachers. Look for him among his many Silent Heroes, and all those who love God and did God’s will. Look for him in that place where there are no tears.
“Your light must shine before people,
so that they will see the good things you do
and praise your Father in Heaven.” Matt. 5:16