I grew up in Everett, Mass., which is a blue-collar town. My father was a policeman. He was a professional boxer for a while. So he was a very honest, straightforward guy, and he understood life. My mother was a homemaker and a trustee at the library. Her idea was, “You’ve got to go to college and do what I didn’t get the chance to do.” My father got that and basically said, “Well, you’re going to go to Harvard.”
My father arranged an interview at Harvard with a guy named Fred Glimp, the legendary dean of admissions. He ended up looking at my father and saying, “If he were my son, I would send him to prep school for a year.”
I almost fell out of my chair. He said, “You know, Exeter might be a nice place to go.” My father looked at me and said, “Take Monday off. We’re going to Exeter.” It was 50 miles away. I thought it was in, like, Botswana. I had no idea.
The first guy I ran into at Exeter was Craig Stapleton. He is a past ambassador to France and the Czech Republic, and a tremendous guy. He said, “I’m assigned to you.” He was a cheerleader. Where I come from, the cheerleaders had big haircuts and they’re great looking. I’ve got a guy cheerleader and I thought, What is that all about?
He said, “You want to play squash?” I’d never heard of squash. I thought you ate squash. And I didn’t even like that squash. Now, he’s a partner of mine and a very close friend. I talk to him almost every day. He came from Mars and I came from Venus. I could see how different the world was.
My first year at Harvard turned out to be transformational. The first class I went to, the professor said to the class, “Let’s go around the room and tell us your name, where you’re from, and what your father does for a living.” I’m hearing doctor, lawyer, business guy, doctor, lawyer, lawyer, lawyer, doctor. And I’m going to say what, “My father’s in law enforcement”? So I stood up and said, “I’m Joe O’Donnell from Everett, and my father is a cop.” That was a defining moment for me, because I made a decision right then that, for my time there, I was going to be myself.