O’Donnell a Pied Piper for variety of Springs events

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John-O'DonnellJohn O’Donnell grew up in Colorado Springs, and while he’s known to many as the man behind the St. Patrick’s Day parade, his fingerprints have been on many community initiatives through the years.

Fundraising, politics and community building are what he might consider his bailiwick.

John and his wife, Carol, founded their company O’Donnell & O’Donnell in 1984. It’s a public relations firm that prides itself on the ability to manage large-scale community events as well as raise funds for bond and mill levy campaigns.

Community events that O’Donnell & O’Donnell have worked on include the Welcome Home parades for military members plus the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo, Veterans Day and Festival of Lights parades.

But next up is the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade and its accompanying 50K bike ride and the 5K run.

O’Donnell talked to the Business Journal this week about some of his work.

Was public relations and the event business your first career choice?

My first career was I started out working on political campaigns across Colorado in 1976. I had majored in political science at the University of Southern Colorado, which is now CSU-Pueblo. My adviser became Gov. Dick Lamm’s legislative liaison, another term for lobbyist, and he invited me to do my internship at the Legislature. I also worked on the rewrite of the Colorado School Finance Act in 1975, which was my first opportunity to work with a broad-based group, in this case school districts, around a single objective.

The “sausage-making” side of the political process has always been intriguing to me. We are allowed to do that in America and I believe that embracing the difficulty of decision-making and consensus-building is the exercise of democracy in its purest form.

How has your job and industry changed over the years? How has it stayed the same?

In the early years, my wife and business partner Carol and I touched every facet of the business ourselves. Now there are several of us in the office and I get to manage parts of the process. We are still a “micro” business in the grand scope of things, but we now have more people to lend a hand.

What we do is sometimes repetitive, but when we get busy with bond campaigns and mill levy issues, we get to work with many different casts of characters in different communities around the state.

What’s the best part of your job, and what have been some career highlights so far?

In 1988 I volunteered to handle the fundraising to keep my old high school, St. Mary’s, open. Six of us raised $2.5 million in about two years. We lost a lot of sleep over those two years but it was well worth it. St. Mary’s is alive and well thanks to the hard work of hundreds of families in our community.

Other highlights are:

  • Starting the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Parade of Lights in the same year, 1985.
  • Working with Jim Moore, John Henry and Pat Cone to restart the Veterans Day parade in 1993.
  • The Welcome Home parades for military troops in 2003 and 2009
  • Coordinating the fundraising for Mary Lou Makepeace’s mayoral campaigns

The best part of my job is that there usually are no dull moments. We work with hundreds of people each year, and each one is a newfound friend.

I’m often approached by people who tell me they were in the St. Pat’s parade when they were younger and now their kids are involved. These events help to give our community an identity.

What can St. Patrick’s Day parade-goers expect this year? Anything new?

There will be more than 100 parade entries that include service clubs, schools, marching bands and car clubs. More than 3,000 spectators are expected to show up.

We put a renewed emphasis this year on marketing both the 50K bike ride and the 5K run. We’re hoping for more participants. In 2012, there were 3,347 runners in the 5K and more than 500 participated in the bike ride. About 500 children took part in the Leprechaun Fun Run.

This year we’re hosting the DeLorean Car Club, which we spirited away from the Denver parade, and the Denver El Jebel Pipe Band will perform, along with the Wasson/Mitchell combined high school Band … for the final Wasson High School performance.

If you could change one thing about Colorado Springs, what would it be?

Just a little more rain each year!