P.J. Adonizio, the funeral director, was in the Sunday Dispatch offices one day when someone asked if anybody had seen Spot.
“I think he just ran through here,” P.J. said, pointing to the floor.
No, P.J., that wasn’t Spot. That was Shawna, the dog. Shawna was a neighborhood stray adopted by Dispatch bookkeeper Patricia Weiksner. She came to work with Pat every morning and had the run of the place.
Spot was our head pressman.
P.J.’s mistake was understandable. You don’t meet a lot of guys named Spot. But once you met this one you never forgot him.
I wrote a dozen columns or more about Spot while he was alive, always dreading the one I’d write after he died.
I was in Austin, Texas, visiting my daughter for Thanksgiving, when I heard the news. James “Spot” O’Donnell died on Thanksgiving evening, Nov. 22. My heart sank when I read the obit in the online version of The Citizens’ Voice. He was 96 years old, a year younger than my dad would have been had he lived. I did not know until the obit that the two of them shared the same birthday, Oct. 12. That’s appropriate. Spot was a second father to me.
I always think about Spot around Christmastime because one of the first pieces I wrote about him was under the headline: Tough Guy vs. Tanenbaum.
Spot’s son Jimmy gave him the nickname “Tough Guy.” Jimmy worked alongside his dad in the Dispatch pressroom and often came to work with “Wait till you hear what Tough Guy did” on his lips. One day he said Tough Guy bought a backhoe. “He saw it sitting in someone’s backyard,” Jimmy said, “so he made them an offer. Then we had to figure out how to get it home.”
“You never know when you might need a backhoe,” Spot said, overhearing our conversation.
Spot and his family lived at Harvey’s Lake, first in an old mansion that had been vacant for some time, and later in an impressive boat house Spot built on the shoreline.
One time following Memorial Day weekend, I asked Jimmy how was his holiday. “Don’t ask,” he grumbled. “Tough Guy discovered a bunch of railroad ties at the bottom of the lake and I spent the day digging them out and bringing them up to the shore.”
When Spot came in I asked him what he had done to poor Jimmy.
“Whaddya mean?” he answered. “A day swimming in the lake? What young guy wouldn’t trade places with him?”
To Spot, work was fun and vice versa. And in spite of himself, Jimmy felt the same.
No better example of Tough Guy’s approach to life can be found than his annual Christmas tree escapade. The mansion had a gigantic main room with a vaulted ceiling that allowed for a 20-ft. Christmas tree.
That’s a challenge Tough Guy could not resist.
Every December he would put a classified ad in the paper asking if anyone had an evergreen they wanted removed from their property for free. When he found the tree he wanted, he would cut it down and cart it out to the lake.
One time a little old lady called hoping they would cut down a tree she thought would crush her house if it ever fell. “It was ridiculous,” Jimmy said. “Way too big for our house but also the ugliest Christmas tree you ever saw.”
But Spot and Jimmy felt bad for the lady, so they cut it down anyway and tossed it into the woods on their way home.
One year they found the perfect tree but when they got it home, they couldn’t get it into the house. This was the tree that prompted my column. The branches at its base were so broad and so strong that, even with the double French doors on the back of the house wide open, they could not ram the tree through. They tried a couple of running starts without luck.
But that did not stop Tough Guy.
He got a device called a “come-along,” a hand operated winch often used for lifting engines out of automobiles, attached it to the front of the house, hooked a cable onto the trunk of the tree, and proceeded to crank the giant evergreen into the living room. Fortunately, the door frames held.
Jimmy said two rules always applied to the O’Donnell Christmas tree.
First, the only ornament Spot would put on was the star on top, which he’d place while hanging from a rafter. The family had to decorate the rest.
Second, the tree had to remain in place until St. Patrick’s Day.
“There wouldn’t be a needle left on it,” Jimmy said, “but that didn’t matter to Tough Guy.”
I always referred to Spot as “a 365-day-a-year Irishman.” His parents were born in Donegal, Ireland, and he was mighty proud of it.
I could always draw, and Spot once had me make a giant sign which he placed at the base of the long driveway heading up to the mansion. It featured a lively “Spot-like” leprechaun and the words “O’Donnell’s Donegal Hill.”
After a few weeks, the sign went missing. It was eventually discovered in a dorm room at then-College Misericordia. Spot was thrilled to get it back, but not one bit upset at the college guys who swiped it. “They had good taste in signs,” he said.
Despite the Tough Guy tag, Spot was a gentle sort. He loved to laugh and always sought a reason to. The world could be coming down around him, and Spot would say, “We have to find the humor in this.”
Back when the Dispatch was printed on an old Heidelberg letterpress in the bowels of the Dime Bank Building in downtown Pittston, a piece broke off the press one night and embedded itself in the machinery, bringing the entire operation to a dead stop. Everyone had a look of panic. “What are we going to do, Spot?” someone asked.
“The first thing we are going to do,” Spot said, “is send out for coffee.”
Then he figured out a way to fix it.
On June 23, 1972, Spot was at his home at Harvey’s Lake. The next day he was due at the Sunday Dispatch to run the press. This time, however, there was a problem that perhaps even Tough Guy could not solve.
Between his home on the West Side of the Susquehanna River and the Dispatch printing plant on the East Side, was something that has come to be known as the Flood of 1972.
The Dispatch had the latest offset printing technology and Spot was the only guy around who could run it. The Dispatch staff, which included me, spent Friday and Saturday preparing a paper that would become a collector’s item. On Friday morning, “Pidge” Watson, publisher but also jack-of-all-trades, actually got aerial photos of the flooding. His buddy George Bone had gotten word to get his plane out of Forty Fort Airport. So he took Pidge with him. The June 25 issue of the paper would illustrate the flood like no other.
But only if it got printed.
We worked around the clock believing somehow Spot would find a way to get to us. And he did.
With sidekick and fellow pressman Carl Rhodes, also of the Back Mountain, at his side, Spot made his way by vehicle and then by boat to the West Side of the Coxton Bridge, an old railroad bridge spanning the river, and the two proceeded to walk across it, the swollen Susquehanna roaring beneath them.
On Sunday morning, Pidge Watson traveled to the West Side communities by boat, personally delivering Sunday Dispatch to stores and newsstands and individual homes, all free of charge. I doubt he told everyone they were “courtesy of Tough Guy Spot O’Donnell,” but in essence, they were.
In essence, every Dispatch was.