ABINGDON, Va. — Michael O’Donnell sprang from his chair upon hearing his name called and quickly walked forward Wednesday to shake hands with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam.
O’Donnell was the first of more than 30 longtime state employees honored Wednesday for their years of service. Currently a French professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, O’Donnell, 76, has been bringing bits of the world to his students in the mountains for 52 years. A world traveler, he has no intention of retiring.
“I meant to stay two [years],” O’Donnell said after receiving a diamond-studded medallion, a certificate and a challenge coin from the governor. “I had come out of the Peace Corps, and I was getting all these offers for government jobs, but this is where I wanted to be. It was never about money — I love the kids. I’ve taught more than 20,000 kids.”
The school was known as Clinch Valley College when O’Donnell arrived in the mountains in August 1968, and it was transitioning from a two-year to a four-year institution. He has worn many hats during his tenure, including director of admissions, dean of students, tennis coach, athletics director and dean of international travel.
His first love, he said, is teaching.
“I’m a teacher. I go seven days a week, I come in at 6:30 in the morning — I just love the place,” he said.
With that kind of enthusiasm, he has no plans to retire.
“Somebody said, ‘What if you die there?’ What do I care? Do you want to die in an old folks home? Fishing or golfing? I don’t do that nonsense. I teach,” he said.
The ceremony at the Southwest Higher Education Center in Abingdon honored more than 30 state employees — some from as far away as Blacksburg and Danville — with more than 40 years of service in various state departments and institutions. Three additional ceremonies are planned in Charlottesville, Hampton Roads and northern Virginia, according to Grindley Johnson, deputy secretary of administration.
Cumulatively, the employees represent nearly 4,000 years of public service, she said.
“It’s great to be here to give thanks to those who have served this great commonwealth and really made us proud over the years,” the governor told the audience. “The jobs you all do day in and day out, a lot of times, go unrecognized, and you don’t really get the thanks you deserve. I think Virginia is the best state in the country, and it is what it is because of people like you.”