LINCOLN PARK — Dan O’Donnell, an influential Lincoln Park businessman and property owner, was picking up breakfast one morning in 1997 when he noticed a group of kids sitting on their luggage across the street from his hardware store.
When O’Donnell returned to Armitage Hardware, 925 W. Armitage Ave., the kids were still sitting there, so he approached them and learned they were students from Ireland visiting Chicago for a summer program. They’d been staying in a hostel but ran out of money and were looking for work and a place to stay.
“That’s all my dad had to know for him to put them up in one of our apartments and give them jobs at the hardware store,” said Brian O’Donnell, one of Dan’s three children.
Dan O’Donnell, 80, died Jan. 19 after a boating trip with one of his sons in Florida. He suffered a severe brain hemorrhage and died peacefully back ashore, Brian O’Donnell said.
In addition to being a welcoming host for thousands of Irish students since he met that first group of youngsters, Dan O’Donnell was a “beacon of light” to the commercial strip and community surrounding the Armitage Brown Line stop.
“Dan’s entire adult life was dedicated to not just the area, but literally that corner,” said Diane Levin, a neighbor and longtime friend.
O’Donnell became a co-owner of Armitage Hardware in 1969, eventually buying out the business from his partner and establishing himself as a leader within the community.
He and his wife invested in Lincoln Park in the ’60s and ’70s, buying buildings and restoring their historical properties. They built a home in the top suite of their hardware store’s building and moved in.
“My dad was heavily involved in the development of Lincoln Park and all the neighborhood groups,” Brian O’Donnell said. “He also had good relationships with the local gangs and would get them to help out on neighborhood projects like revitalizing the Armitage CTA station.”
Greg Gibbs, owner of Chicago Bagel Authority, 953 W. Armitage Ave., said O’Donnell was the “neighborhood mayor and de facto alderman of the street” for his role in rejuvenating the area.
Gibbs has known O’Donnell since opening his bagel sandwich shop 23 years ago and said he was always the “go-to person in the neighborhood for how to do anything.”
When O’Donnell downsized his hardware store to a small storefront off Bissell Street, he made sure businesses filling his larger storefront would complement others in the neighborhood.
“He said he didn’t want to put a sandwich shop in because that would hurt your business, or a new restaurant would hurt this other business,” Gibbs said. “He really felt like a family member to the neighborhood who cared and looked out for us all.”
Erika Vargas, whose boutique retail store Peruvian Connection sits in one of the storefronts created from the hardware store, said O’Donnell’s neighborly spirit has helped her get through the last year of the pandemic.
“He was a great light in the darkest days,” Vargas said. “Every day that he’d walk by, he’d knock on the window and give me a thumbs up to let me know, ‘You can do this. You can make it.'”
On snowy days, O’Donnell would be outside shoveling sidewalks for the community. He also installed benches along Armitage Avenue so people had a place to sit while waiting safely outside for orders when the pandemic first began.
Businesses all along the Armitage strip have placed signs in their storefronts memorializing O’Donnell and thanking him for his contributions over the years.
“Everybody has something good to say about him. Even customers are calling to share memories,” Vargas said.
O’Donnell didn’t stop with providing housing and jobs to that group of Irish students outside his store. He became their personal tour guide of the city.
“That summer he’d take the kids out to meals, he’d take them out on our boat every Wednesday and show them around Chicago from the river, and they just had the time of their lives those three months,” Brian O’Donnell said.
The next year, those same students returned to Chicago with their friends, and O’Donnell again helped the 20-something exchange students find housing and employment within the city.
Over the years, O’Donnell helped more than 16,000 Irish exchange students find their footing in Chicago while on summer visas.
“Every year, more and more students would show up at the hardware store, looking for Dan O’Donnell. He’s a legend over in Ireland,” Brian O’Donnell said. “2012 was our biggest year, and we had about 1,500 kids come through our doors.
“He took them all in as one of his own because that’s just who my dad was.”
Last week, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) introduced an ordinance to rename the corner of Armitage Avenue and Bissell Street after O’Donnell. If the City Council approves it, the “Dan O’Donnell Way” signs could be put up as soon as this spring, Brian O’Donnell said.
“Now when the kids come in from Ireland for the visa program, they’re going to see those signs and know they’ve made it to the hardware store in Lincoln Park,” Brian O’Donnell said.
Jake Wittich is a Report for America corps member covering Lakeview, Lincoln Park and LGBTQ communities across the city for Block Club Chicago.
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