We are deeply sorry for your loss - the staff at Sorensen Funeral Home
Born in Panama in 1928, James J. O’Donnell passed away peacefully at age 93 in St. Petersburg, Florida. He lived life to its fullest with adventures of all kinds in the jungles and rivers of Panama, and rose to become Chief Power Dispatcher for the operations of the Panama Canal Zone. Jim also served as a union leader and was the principal negotiator for the rights of canal employees during the drafting of the Panama Canal Treaty of 1977.
At Balboa High School in the Panama Canal Zone, Jim played on the football team and was elected class president. But more importantly, it was there that he met and courted the love of his life, his future wife, Gemma Wright, with whom he had four children: Jim, Joe, Mary and Steve.
In the summers before his junior and senior years in high school, Jim “shipped out” on commercial vessels that came through the canal. Because at times these ships sailed into theaters of war carrying provisions for the allies in World War II, the U.S. retrospectively designated such seafarers as Merchant Marines and Congress honored them with medals for being critical to the war effort. After shipping out, and for the duration of the war, Jim signed up with the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve in the Canal Zone.
Upon graduating from high school Jim enrolled in the Canal Zone’s apprentice program for electricians. His early days as an electrician involved late night shift work on the generators at Madden Dam which controls the flow of water to the canal and which provides power to the locks and surrounding community. Jim’s children benefited from the probably illicit tours he gave inside the walls of the dam with tons of water per second crashing overhead. Jim also took his kids in the dark of night to scale down the side of the dam to stand on the spillway platform to fish for the elusive 8-foot tarpons glinting off the moonlight in the waters below.
Jim later rose in his profession to become the Chief Power Dispatcher for the Panama Canal Zone. One of his major accomplishments was the early adoption of computerized technology for the electrical system. When his kids would ride their bikes down to the power station to bring him his dinner, he would show them this one particular button on the computer panel that had the capacity to make the whole Panama Canal go dark. Talk about impressing your kids.
Jim served as president and in other leadership roles for the Canal Zone based chapters of the AFL-CIO and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. When President Carter and President Torrijos of Panama were drafting the treaty that would relinquish U.S. control over the canal, Jim became the principal representative for the rights of canal workers who would lose their jobs under the treaty. Traveling several times to lobby before the U.S. Congress, Jim and others were able to secure favorable pension packages among other concessions that were not included in original drafts of the treaty. Jim often credited his wife Gemma for her strategic planning and for her writing skills that were central to his union work.
Throughout his life in Panama, Jim made the most of this tropical paradise. He hunted in the jungles for deer, wild pig and other small game with both crossbow and shotguns for which he make his own bullets. Sometimes he hunted at night on deserted muddy backroads with him driving the jeep without headlights and one of his sons sitting on the hood with a head lamp and rifle. There are many stories of him getting lost for hours in the jungle with his hunting dogs. He fished and went skin diving with spear guns in the oceans, lakes and rivers of Panama. And he and Gemma made sure their kids were raised with a menagerie of animals. At any given time,
the O’Donnell house had raccoons, snakes, ducks, horses, and monkeys, in addition to the many cats and dogs.
Upon retirement, Jim and Gemma moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. Jim became active in the Panama Canal Society (a non profit serving U.S. employees who worked in the Panama Canal Zone) serving a term as president and writing the legislative column for the society’s publication. He also really enjoyed his time with the American Merchant Marines Veteran’s Association.
The Panama Canal Museum at the University of Florida conducted an interview of Jim about his time and leadership role in the Panama Canal Zone. This can be listened to under their Oral Histories section: https://ufdc.ufl.edu/collections/ohpcm/results?q=o'donnell.
Jim also wrote a book of memoirs of his time in Panama; the stories range from funny to poignant, to hard-to-believe-it’s true. Although unpublished at this time, his family plans to donate the manuscript to the Panama Canal Museum.
Jim is predeceased in death by his wife, Gemma and his three sons, Jim, Joe and Steve. He is survived by his daughter Mary and granddaughter Erin, as well as his brothers Bob and Tom. Most importantly, the family would like to thank and honor Louis Gaines for being dad’s caretaker for the last six years of this life. Without Louis dad would not have been able to continue relishing life up to the last.
A memorial service will be held for Mr. O’Donnell on Monday, December 20th at 11 a.m. at Bay Pines National Cemetery, 10000 Bay Pines Blvd., St. Petersburg. He will be buried with military honors. All are welcome to attend.