Barbara Adams grew up in Billings but went east for her first year of college.
We don’t know what else she brought with her from the University of Kentucky when she stepped onto the Missoula campus of what’s now the University of Montana in the fall of 1939. But Barbara had an idea that excited her.
Back in Lexington the campus had joined a craze that was sweeping the nation’s colleges, straight from Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip.
“We have a note in our files that said she had gone to the Sadie Hawkins dance in Kentucky and she thought it would be fun to do it at Montana,” said Kate Stober, senior writer and editor for the UM Foundation. “So she brought it to the M Club to see if they would sponsor it. And the president of the M Club was this guy named Tom O’Donnell.”
Barbara was a dark-eyed, tennis-playing beauty who earned her pilot’s license while at the university.
Tom was a handsome, granite-jawed, 6-foot-1, 200-pound tackle from Casper, Wyoming, who would captain the Grizzly football team in 1940.
This being Valentine’s Day, you can guess what happened next.
“It seems like they must have hit it off right away. The spark was there,” said Stober, who has been digging into the storybook romance after UM received a recent scholarship endowment from Barbara in Tom’s name.
Barbara Adams was a business administration major, who as a junior was a candidate for ROTC Coed Colonel. After World War II she was celebrated for her role in the American Women’s Voluntary Services, the largest women’s service organization in the U.S.
He wasn’t the kind to admit it, but Tom O’Donnell was a big man on campus. He received the coveted 1941 Grizzly Cup as the senior who excelled on the field, in the classroom and in community service. A Sigma Nu and member of the advanced ROTC, O’Donnell joined the Army the day after graduation in 1941.
“Quiet almost to the point of shyness, determined to the limit of his ability, and kind to everyone who crossed his path, he was the living embodiment of all the things we hold most precious,” a college professor said of O’Donnell.
More on the professor later.
“So they met, and they totally fell in love,” Stober said.
On Jan. 18, 1942, a Sunday, lieutenants and college buddies Tom O’Donnell and Bruce Babbitt of Livingston took leave from Fort Ord on Monterey Bay, California. They made the 15-mile drive into Del Monte. At 2 p.m. in St. John’s Chapel, Tom and Barbara were married. When that was done, Babbitt and Elizabeth McClure of Missoula exchanged vows.
Stober found an account of the double wedding from the Monterey Peninsula Herald. Mrs. O’Donnell wore a blue crepe princess dress with matching halo hat and veil and a corsage of white orchids. Mrs. Babbitt wore a gold wool dress with a small gold faille hat and a corsage of gardenias and violets.
The wedding dinner was at the Hotel San Carlos in Monterey.
“With only 10 hours’ leave from their duties, the bridegrooms returned to Fort Ord and their brides are sharing a Carmel cottage,” the account concluded.
O’Donnell and Babbitt quickly rose to the ranks of captain. Babbitt earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star in the Pacific theater, returned to Missoula to finish law school, then rejoined the Army as a judge advocate. He served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal in 1969, with one oak leaf cluster in 1973 when he retired.
Babbitt died in Florida in 1999, 10 years after Betty’s death. They’re both buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
Stober tracked down an undated roster of Company I, 32nd Infantry, at Camp San Luis Obispo, California. It lists the 133 men under Capt. Thomas B. O’Donnell.
Because of his degree from UM, O’Donnell was offered a job as an Army instructor in Florida. Instead he chose to join the 32nd Infantry Regiment.
“Barbara always regretted telling him it was his decision,” said O’Donnell’s niece, Tomie Zuchetto, in a message to Stober this week.
In the spring of 1943, Capt. O’Donnell and Company I were in the Aleutian Islands. They were part of the 7th U.S. Infantry Division’s assault on well-entrenched Japanese forces on the island of Attu, the westernmost island in the chain and a strategic stronghold. It was the only battle of World War II fought on U.S. soil.
There are two Holtz Bays on the northeast shoulder of the 35-mile long island. Companies I and K were ordered to advance up the high ground between the two, under all the supporting fire Lt. Col. John Finn of the 32nd Infantry could muster.
Finn described the desperate assault from the flat and bare valley floor in a report a month later.
“All (enemy) positions were above us and all could fire into the entire valley we occupied,” he wrote. “Our own Navy Grumman fighter planes … mistook the enemy positions and bombed and strafed our own troops. The effect this had was numbing.”
O’Donnell moved from squad to squad in I Company’s front lines, giving “such an exhibition of courage and leadership that his men were inspired to advance in the face of heavy enemy fire,” Finn wrote.
Ultimately the flying bullets struck and severely wounded O’Donnell in the neck and right shoulder. He was removed to an aid station on a litter.
The assault proved successful, and three mornings later, Finn looked up from his operating post on top of the ridge to see Capt. O’Donnell reporting for duty.
“He was unable to use his right arm and he could not wear a pack,” the commander wrote. “He was weak and the least motion of his right arm or shoulder caused him pain but he was ready to fight.”
Finn allowed him to return to his company.
On May 25, the 32nd was on the attack again, this time moving north across a pass above the east arm of Holtz Bay. As before, Japanese troops fired from above. Unable to hold a firearm, O’Donnell directed I Company from an exposed operating position.
“Disregarding the danger to his own person he started to move from his covered position to the front lines where he could encourage his men in their fight when he was struck above the left eye by an enemy bullet,” Finn wrote. “He was carried to the aid station where he died the following morning.”
“Can you imagine what Barbara must have gone through?” Stober said last week. “It seems like the future was probably limitless and then — the terrible news. It’s just sort of heartbreaking. And she obviously never got over it.”
Zuchetto, O’Donnell’s niece, is a hospice social worker in Spokane. Her email to Stober included excerpts from the 2016 letter Barbara sent.
“If we had just one child I’d have something of him left, but he was gone all the time after we were married and back then you couldn’t consider having children before marriage,” she wrote.
Accounts differ. In October 1943 a grieving Barbara was either working in the cashier’s office on campus in Missoula or living with her parents, Dr. Frank and Julia Adams, in Billings.
On Oct. 24, a Sunday, she was at the University Oval, where she was presented with Tom’s Distinguished Service Cross by Col. B.H. Hensley, commanding officer at Fort Harrison in Helena.
Four days later, the remains of Tom O’Donnell were laid to rest at the Custer National Cemetery, Little Bighorn National Monument, near Hardin.
In November, the UM professor who so admired O’Donnell stood before the U.S. House of Representatives and paid tribute to him in a Thanksgiving address.
Rep. Mike Mansfield, D-Mont., said he knew Tom O’Donnell well “as a student of mine, a friend and a real American.”
“This boy … lived every day of his life by the Golden Rule and he exemplified in his daily life the things that all of us hold most dear,” Mansfield said. “When I think of him I am reminded of all the others from my state who are fighting our battles today in all parts of the world. …
“I am thinking of their mothers and fathers, their wives and sweethearts, their relatives and their friends. Together they represent our state and our country, and to say that we are proud of all of them is at best an understatement.
“Montana has suffered a grievous loss in his passing, but his life and his memory will continue to serve as an example to the young men of our state … While his wife, Barbara, was proud to receive the government’s recognition of Tom’s worth, I know she was sad, also, because she has lost someone whom she loved dearly. She cannot bring her husband back, but she can rest secure in the knowledge of his great and undying love for his country and for her. This is something no one can take away from her. For his sake she will carry on.”
Barbara O’Donnell’s career after Tom’s death took her to the Honolulu Star Bulletin in Hawaii, to Stanford University and Pan American World Airways in California, and to The Boeing Co. in Seattle, where she worked as an engineer’s analyst. She remarried and she and Hal Genest lived in Menlo Park, California, and Bellevue, Washington.
Barbara moved back to Billings in 1975 after Hal’s death. She retired from a career with the Billings School District as a librarian. Barbara had no children with either husband.
In 2003, at age 83, Barbara wrote a letter to the Department of Military Science at UM, thanking Maj. Philip McCutcheon for agreeing to receive Tom O’Donnell’s Purple Heart, his Distinguished Cross and his 1941 Grizzly Cup. The medals, trophy and other mementos to Tom are on special display behind glass outside the ROTC offices in Schreiber Gym.
Stober said it’s been several years since Genest indicated a desire to leave her estate to their alma mater for a scholarship in Tom O’Donnell’s name. At the encouragement of the UM Foundation, Barbara formally put it in her will.
“We encourage donors to do that so we know it’s coming, and we have the paperwork on file,” Stober said. “Then we can help make sure that we’ve written up a pledge agreement that says here’s where you want the money to go, and we have it in writing so that there’s no misunderstanding.”
Barbara Adams O’Donnell Genest passed away in Billings last Dec. 1. She was 97 years old.
Not long after, a cousin who was executor of her estate presented the check to UM. The Foundation folks were stunned.
“It was a little over $2 million dollars,” Stober said, shaking her head in amazement. “It’s absolutely one of our larger single gifts.”
“I’ve missed Tom, needed Tom, loved Tom all these years more than anyone will ever know,” Barbara wrote to Zuchetto in 2016. “It’s been 74 years. We could have had the most wonderful marriage and family and been so happy with our great love for each other.
“If I had only said, ‘Let’s go to Florida where you could put your degree to use,’ instead of saying ‘I think it’s your decision,’ I truly feel he would have gone. He once said he’d be happy any place as long as I was with him.”