NEW PORT RICHEY — Arthur O'Donnell was a math genius.
Just ask Jessica Meek. As a student at Hudson High School, Meek said, her geometry teacher offered only one way to solve a problem, a method that didn't really help.
So she turned to Dr. O'Donnell, a math teacher turned principal, for advice.
"Within five minutes he had me mastering it," recalled Meek, now an assistant principal at the school. "He was a great guy. … It's people like him who inspired people like me to take this path."
Similar memories flowed Thursday (Jan. 2, 2014) as word spread that Dr. O'Donnell had died early that morning at 67. The longtime educator, known affectionately as Dr. O to his students and staff, succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
The illness caught Dr. O'Donnell and his family by surprise.
In generally good health, he had a small stomachache in early November that a couple days of Tums didn't dispatch. So his wife, Renee, suggested consulting a doctor. A scan for ulcers revealed the aggressive disease.
For more than three decades, Dr. O'Donnell made his mark in Pasco County as a school leader. He started his career in the late 1960s as a 22-year-old actuary turned math instructor at Gulf Middle School.
He quickly rose through the ranks, becoming Gulf High principal in 1974. He later served in the district office as a math specialist before returning to the principal's post at Hudson High for 13 years and then Ridgewood High for five years until his retirement.
"Art was a man of integrity, a man that treated people fairly," said Chip Wichmanowski, a friend and former fellow principal.
Mike Asbell, who worked as an assistant principal with Dr. O'Donnell for 11 years, called his friend and mentor a "genuine people person" who led by example, not by fiat.
"We used to joke he was the kind of person who could call you in and chew you out for something you screwed up, and you would walk out and say thank you," said Asbell, now principal at Bayonet Point Middle School. "He didn't tear you down. He went that extra step. He helped you fix it."
Asbell recalled much laughter in staff meetings, something many other colleagues shared in their postings on a Facebook page honoring Dr. O. Students also shared fond remembrances.
One former student, Eddie Addis, wrote how Dr. O'Donnell turned his life around when he was going "nowhere fast," showing Addis the "right way and helped me get there." Another student, Heather Cox, wrote about Dr. O'Donnell's willingness to work through problems and help students achieve their education needs.
"His heart was at the school. His heart was helping kids," Asbell said. "Unfortunately, they threw the mold away when they made Art O'Donnell. There's never been another principal like him, and there never will be."
Meek suggested that Dr. O'Donnell's influence can be seen daily at Hudson High, where many in the faculty are also alumni. He instilled that type of loyalty and family atmosphere, she said.
Dr. O'Donnell's retirement focused on his own family, his son David said, calling his father his "best friend."
"I'd call him every day. They live close. I'd always shoot over there," he said. "Any time they did anything, he always called me for an invite. … He was real supportive."
He kept busy doing housework, treating his wife, Renee, like royalty until he couldn't any longer, David O'Donnell added. "They're nuts about each other."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]