In Memoriam: Kevin O’Donnell, Jr., 1950-2012.

Devoted husband and faithful friend.

As the author of ten published novels and over seventy published short stories and articles, Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. won literary awards and had a devoted following of readers. He chaired SFWA’s Nebula Award Committee, ran SFWA’s Bulletin, helped run SFWA’s website and for six years held SFWA’s dirtiest and most thankless job as Chairman of SFWA’s Grievance Committee. For this he deservedly received SFWA’s highest honor, the Service To SFWA Award.

But his many achievements all stand in the shadow of his masterwork: himself.

An extraordinary human being who blended the best talents of a thinker, a businessman, and a storyteller, Kevin spent much of his teen years in South Korea, where his father was Country Director for the Peace Corps. His interest in Asia and language skills led him to take his degree at Yale in Asian Studies, and to consider going farther as a scholar, but the academic world of the day was politically hostile to the areas and periods that most interested him. That was pure Kevin; he followed where his mind chose to go, and other people came along or they didn’t.

That same independent, lone-wolf style was visible in his journey from centrism to conservatism on the political spectrum, culminating in his embrace of pure libertarianism. He was absolutely consistent about first principles, and would, for example, interrupt a discussion on how to prevent crimes in public parks in order to object to the very existence of taxpayer-funded public parks. Joint opposition to such positions by the mixed forces of the left, right and center fazed him not in the least, for Kevin always knew just where he stood and why he stood there. In an argument with him (and we enjoyed many of them, and will miss them terribly), you could count on his response to be a systematic, careful, point-by-point refutation and extension, every time. Everything Kevin did and said proceeded by careful logic from first principles; where there was contradiction (as happened sometimes between his kind heart, his firm Catholicism, and his passionate libertarianism), he was utterly candid about finding himself in a quandary and about his provisional reasons for resolving it in whichever way he did. His passion for and faith in reason were often astonishing and always extraordinary.

Kevin was also centered, at peace with himself, and comfortable with who he was in a way many seek but few achieve. His strong sense of right and wrong, loyalty, decency, and integrity were such that it was not only a pleasure to have him as a friend, but an honor and a point of pride. He adored his wife and family, and whatever he loved, he loved deeply; a few months ago, he broke down like a child when describing the passing of his cat of twenty-one years.

Kevin’s courage reaches out to us from every sentence of the letters he sent to his close friends and family once he became aware that he had metastasized lung cancer and was likely to die from it.

Sadly, a man with such a gift for living by the power of his mind did not overcome his physical addiction to smoking until he was already ill.

To honor Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s memory and service, we, his friends for decades, ask one thing: if you smoke cigarettes, quit now. If anyone you care about does, help them to quit. Tobacco robbed us of what might have been decades more of Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s unique voice and personality; please don’t let it claim more victims.

John Barnes
John E. Johnston III

7 Responses

  1. John E. Johnston III

    Kevin’s Funeral Eulogy, by his beloved wife of many years, Kim Tchang

    EULOGY

    When I first met Kevin at Yale, I was a shy Chinese-American girl trying to find her way in a male-dominated university environment. Kevin gave me the courage to explore new things, the confidence to strive for excellence, and the power of love to nurture my soul.

    One of my early experiments with Kevin was trying alcohol for the very first time. He told me not to be afraid of doing silly things while under the influence because he was there to protect me. By making this promise, he got more than he had bargained for. Shortly after drinking three shots of whiskey, I gleefully snuck into the nearby cemetery and could have gotten into serious trouble. But Kevin followed me faithfully as I danced around the tombstones and kept me safe from harm. That was just the beginning of a wonderful journey with my beloved Kevin.

    When I ventured into my first high-tech sales job with Xerox, Kevin was there for me every step of the way. Whether helping me learn new technology, patiently listening to my sales presentations, or encouraging me to establish new sales records, Kevin gave me the strength to achieve my best.

    Later when I was debating whether to accept a unique job offer from Hewlett Packard for an assignment in France, Kevin did not hesitate. “Exciting jobs like these don’t come often,” he said. “Go for it!” Now perhaps the fact that he would get trips to London, Geneva, and the French Riviera might have influenced his advice. But I think it was more that Kevin believed in me and knew that an experience in Europe would help me grow and be a stronger person. Without his steadfast support, I would never have embarked on what turned into one of the most memorable chapters in both our lives.

    When my mother became ill, I spent two years going back and forth between CA and NY every month to help take care of her. Though this meant being apart from Kevin, he never complained because he understood the importance of family. My mother had wanted me to marry a Chinese man, but she instantly fell in love with Kevin. In her first encounter with the prospective son-in-law, she deliberately tested Kevin by serving Chinese dishes (with strange ingredients like sea urchin) and watched him eat them with gusto. She spoke to him in rapid Mandarin and was amazed when he responded in kind. Kevin transformed her from being a skeptic to being one of his staunchest advocates.
    Kevin was always modest about his intelligence and sense of humor, never flaunting but rather using them to provide sage advice, engage in lively discussions, and offer comfort to those who needed it. Even when he was suffering from cancer, he could always make his doctors and nurses laugh and gained their respect with his special wit, creative mind, and deep insights.

    While Kevin had the gift of blarney like any good Irishman, he was also an excellent listener. You could talk to him about anything, and he would lend a sympathetic ear – whether a niece who needed college advice, a sibling who needed career help, or a friend who needed a shoulder to cry on. He deserves special credit for listening patiently to me as I tried to entertain him with jokes, but would forget the punch line at the end.

    Kevin knew what he wanted and never strayed from that path. Though becoming an attorney was fashionable at the time and Kevin had gotten a scholarship to law school, he chose writing as his profession – one that he loved and had dreamed about since high school. He authored ten published novels and over seventy published short stories and articles. Among his accomplishments, he won the Mannesmann Tally literary award in science fiction. Of course, I did not object when this award also included a romantic trip to Paris over Valentine’s Day weekend.

    Kevin stayed true to himself, even when it came to fashion. He loved blue jeans – what you see is what you get. Always authentic, never pretentious, that was Kevin – a man of character and great integrity, someone you could trust through thick and thin.

    Kevin – my dearest loved one – I know that you hated long, boring speeches, so let me end by saying that you were a truly extraordinary human being. Though words cannot do justice to how I feel about you, I hope this tribute conveys my undying love for you, not only as my husband, but also as my best friend.

  2. Bill Reich

    I met Kevin when I worked at Book World in New Haven. I have read almost everything Kevin ever wrote and plan to get and read the rest.
    My thoughts are with you in your loss.

    Bill Reich

  3. Gregory Frost

    Kevin was one of the first sf writers I met when I moved to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. And one of the most delightful to hang out with. He was a fabulous, wonderful, generous man.

    -gf

  4. bryan broyles

    He wrote wonderful works. I have dogeared, battered copies of his McGill Feighan works that I go back to over and over. Seems to have been a good man, as well as a good writer. Sad news.

  5. Roy Brander

    We corresponded briefly several years ago when I begged him to write more McGill Feighan books and close up some of the remaining mysteries in them. He was very warm and funny and friendly to a complete stranger accosting him by e-mail. He’ll be long remembered for books both fun and thought-provoking. His ORA:CLE was certainly a sharp imagining of what the Internet was going to be, when computer networking was limited entirely to Universities and a few internal corporate networks.

  6. Kent Brewster

    Kevin O’Donnell Jr. was the reason why Speculations happened. Those of you who made your first sales (and there are many of you!) because of Speculations owe it all to him.

  7. Lawrence M. Schoen

    I read and was consistently delighted by Kevin’s work, book after book. Then, years later when I finally met him at a Nebula Awards Weekend I found myself suddenly going all fanboy and gushing my appreciation. Kevin was gracious and charming. I’m a better writer for having read his work, and a better person for having had even those few brief instances of speaking with him.