When Helen O’Donnell came to Mount Ida College in the early 80s, she was adrift, having just lost both parents. Her father, Kenneth O’Donnell, had served his professional life alongside John F. Kennedy, seeing him through political failures and successes that propelled him to the White House.
“I knew I wanted to go to college, but I was afraid of being lost in the mix at a big school,” Helen says. Then, her sister-in-law, Chris O’Donnell, a history teacher, along with then Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, who had been like a big brother to her, recommended this small college in Newton that could afford her the ability to learn, grow and feel safe. “That College was Mount Ida and I’m forever grateful for the opportunity it gave me to do just that.”
After graduating with an associate degree in paralegal studies in 1982, Helen went to Washington, D.C. to study history and politics and ended up working in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy. It seemed such a natural progression with her father’s close relationship to the President. “I would get to bounce ideas off the Kennedys and they even helped me start up a small non-profit called the Democracy Foundation. Then, I was able to obtain a job at the “Congressional Quarterly” and soon learned I had a talent and a passion for writing.”
Jump forward a number of years and that passion was fulfilled with the publication of Helen’s first book, A Common Good: The Friendship of Robert F. Kennedy and Kenneth P. O’Donnell, and her work collaborating with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on his 2012 book Jack Kennedy Elusive Hero.
With her first book under her belt, Helen discovered that her father had done a series of interviews with NBC White House correspondent Sander Vanocur that were housed in boxes at the JFK Library in Boston. “They were in no order, hadn’t been catalogued, but were a treasure-trove of conversations in which my father revealed a true behind-the-scenes look at life inside the Kennedy inner circle.”
She began transcribing the tapes and a few years later, The Irish Brotherhood; John F. Kennedy His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency, hit the shelves.
“It was an amazing journey, through the tapes, for me to spend time with my late father and create this chronicle.“ But, she adds, it would not have happened without her Mount Ida experience. “Going through the loss of my parents at such a young age, I didn’t’ have direction. Mount Ida gave me that direction – the ability to blossom without getting lost. My experience was about learning who I am and Mount Ida gave me the stability I needed to get on the road for the next steps.”
And a few of the next steps for Helen include a second volume on the story of the Irish brotherhood and a work-in-progress on Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack and JFK.