Editor’s Note: After a decade at Huntington College, Jim O’Donnell, associate professor of business and executive-in-residence, will release his first book, Letters for Lizzie. It is a book about the unfolding of a horrific set of events striking a family. The book is composed of 13 letters written to "friends back East." In the finished book, each of the 13 original letters is preceded by a brief reflection on thoughts and emotions not included in the original letter. Published by Northfield/Moody Press, Letters for Lizzie will be widely available in bookstores and on-line in May. Orders of the book are being taken at the official website, www.lettersforlizzie.com, or at www.amazon.com.
With the loving quilt hanging in their home, Lizzie and Jim O'Donnell enjoy each day they have together.
Huntington, Ind.— Jim O’Donnell is ten years removed from a successful, high-profile business world and ten years removed from health and wealth, so to speak. Jim and his wife, Lizzie, had a faith in God that was big enough to risk everything familiar to them as they left behind money, friends and nearness to family. They moved from Boston’s financial district to the Huntington College campus in 1993. For this Huntington College business professor, the past decade has been a journey of bumpy roads and, at times like Jacob, a desperate wrestling with God. Through patience and grief, Jim has become a vessel for God, not only to his family, but to each student who sits through his classes and takes his demanding exams. He is teaching Christian ethics and how they apply to society’s future business leaders – a far cry from his old work in the dog-eat-dog world of high finance. And he’s also trying to teach his wider family, friends and loved ones the importance of trust and reliance on God – even as he has learned to stare down the impending death of the most important human being in his life.
Jim and Lizzie met in the summer of 1967 and married in August of 1971. In the mid-1980’s, Jim and Lizzie became Christians. They lived a comfortable life in Boston, as Jim held prestigious positions in the business world. On a “get-a-way” trip to upstate New York, Jim and Lizzie found themselves near a Christian liberal arts institution named Houghton College. With degrees from leading Ivy League schools, Brown and Columbia, Jim was curious about what a “Christian” liberal arts school was all about.
“Silly as it may sound, with the good education I’d gotten, I was unaware that there were Christian liberal arts colleges,” says Jim, who at the time was about six-months old in his new faith. “So, I asked Lizzie if she’d mind if we took a short drive to Houghton College, just to walk around and ask people what it was like.”
After his visit to campus, and stopping students to ask what it was like being at a Christian college, Jim wrote the president of Houghton College. A short time later, he ended up meeting the president and, shortly thereafter, Houghton’s director of development, Blair Dowden. The following year, in 1986, Jim was invited to teach at Houghton.
“For a year, I had been praying, ‘Lord, you’ve given me gifts that I’ve used only for myself. Help me to put them to their highest and best use for you and your kingdom,’” Jim reflects. “But I began to realize that I was scared to leave the money I was making and my familiar surroundings to try to survive in a small-town atmosphere on a fraction of my salary.”
So, out of fear, Jim turned down Houghton, and later, in 1989, he turned down Gordon College, as well.
Then, in 1991, Jim received a call from Blair, who was in his first year as president at Huntington College. He invited Jim to speak at a chapel. So, in February of 1992, Jim made his first trip to Indiana.
An opening in the business department at HC appeared in the fall of 1992, and Blair asked Jim to fill out an application. Somewhat weak-in-knees, he eventually obliged and flew out for an interview the following February.
During the interview, Jim remembers being asked, “Why would you want to leave where you are to come here?” And he answered, “I have no idea!” He honestly felt that it may not be a good fit.
The next day, Jim went to dinner with a few members of the faculty and his thoughts began to change. “It wasn’t any one thing; it was just an accumulation of watching these people and listening to them,” he says. “There was such an honesty and humility emanating from them. I was deeply touched and realized that I wanted to be more like them.”
As Jim struggled with the decision, he remembers thinking of many excuses why he shouldn’t come to Huntington: a son who was about be a high school senior, housing, schooling for his younger children, scenery, weather, flatness of the land. Most of it was sheer nonsense, Jim recalls, but over dinner with the Dowdens, Jim expressed his concerns, and rather than withdraw the offer – which he expected and would have found fine - Blair worked with him to sort through the spiritual crisis of making such a big change. Throughout the dinner conversation, to any problem Jim found about moving to Huntington, Blair offered a solution.
“When I made the decision to come to Huntington, it wasn’t an exclamatory response of ‘Yes, I can’t wait!’” Jim says. “It was, in all honesty, more like a sigh and then an, ‘Okay, God, if I have to.’”
In January of 1995, just a few months after the O’Donnells moved to Indiana, the family received the horrific news that Lizzie had terminal breast cancer.
“I thought we would move back East because the best doctors were in Boston and New York. Instead, our doctor friends back there directed us to the Indiana University medical center, which we soon learned was on the cutting edge of research,” Jim describes.
Jim began to write letters to friends back East, who, in some cases, thought Jim had been crazy to give up what he had back there. Those raw and honest letters were his attempt to begin a prayer network for Lizzie.
During the first nine months, Lizzie underwent two disfiguring surgeries and seven high-dosage chemotherapy treatments, and everything seemed to go well. Then in September, she came down with flu-like symptoms. A chest x-ray revealed a new terminal diagnosis. Lizzie now had heart failure from the chemotherapy, and since she had battled cancer so recently, she was not a good candidate for a heart transplant.
Lizzie did eventually get a heart transplant for research purposes only. Miraculously, she’s still enjoying life today and uses the time she’s been given in volunteer service, making a difference in many lives.
Throughout their ordeal, Jim and Lizzie found themselves within a community of deeply caring people – the same kind of people that Jim was so impressed with during his first interview. Still seemingly a stranger to these new colleagues, Jim found friendships and kindness from people who wanted to share his burden.
“Going through 18 straight months of pure, nonstop crisis was not easy. I was exhausted,” Jim remembers. “I’m grateful for the people on this campus who stuck with me, who I could go out to lunch with and ‘un-burden.’ And I’m grateful to the students who would send encouraging notes.”
There is a quilt hanging in the O’Donnell house that is a wonderful reminder of the love they have received from Huntington. A woman from their Sunday School class organized several loving women to make her a quilt. The quilter knew that time was of the essence, so she had members of the class each make a square so it could be done in enough time for Lizzie to enjoy.
“That quilt is a very visible reminder of the hope that we have. A reminder to us today that we have not been abandoned,” Jim says.
The O’Donnells know that awful things can happen in a fallen world, but they also know that God responds to prayer. “Our family has lived, in great part, because of the power of prayer,” Jim says. “Lizzie was not supposed to live a year. Yet, she did and then survived a heart transplant that was done for research purposes only with no expectation that she could or would make it as long and as far as she has. We’re fortunate people. We’ve lived through miracles.”
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