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Dennis O'Donnell, 77

| January 25, 2024 12:00 AM


Dennis O'Donnell ("Den" to many closest to him), 77, of Missoula, passed away Jan. 14, 2024, from complications caused by Parkinson's. Den was born Sept. 28, 1946.

Den lived large. Physically, he was a big man, 6'2" and athletic. Warm and kind, Dennis was a great storyteller and communicator. Even in his last days, he would deadpan witty retorts, smiling when the room burst out laughing.

Den loved people and seemed to know someone everywhere he went. Stopping and chatting with friends suited Den perfectly, as he was never in a hurry. Instead, he savored life, saying yes to that second croissant even when he had someplace to be. If you got him talking about his family, the man could wax poetic for hours. He loved his family and friends fiercely: to be loved by Den was a beautiful thing.

Dennis received his B.A. and M.A. in economics from Colorado State University and his Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. He arrived in Missoula at age 27 with a full beard, cut-off jeans, a golden retriever, and a commitment to teaching economics at the University of Montana.

In Missoula, he met MaryEllen and her almost two-year-old daughter, Daphne. It wasn't long before Den considered Daphne his daughter, and the little family of three became "Campbell-O'Donnell-Photiades," which Den said sounded like a law firm.

The three had amazing adventures and lots of laughs, and Daphne grew up loved and supported by Den. When MaryEllen was away, Dennis would cook Daphne dinner, once making broccoli burritos, which became family lore. He was better at making desserts, and his famous sopapillas delighted all.

While economics is known by many as the "dismal science," Dennis' classes were anything but. His playful sense of humor made him a popular teacher, and his approach to teaching enabled him to frame economics as a relevant tool for decision-making, no matter the situation or the audience. Dennis taught undergraduate, graduate and MOLLI students at UM; recently, Dennis received numerous communications from former students recalling class stories and expressing thanks. Some remember him looking like Magnum P.I., but we always thought he looked like Jimmy Buffett.

Dennis' classes were popular because he brought his economics consulting experiences to the classroom. A highly regarded economist, Dennis was honored to receive the John Ruffatto Memorial Award and the Ann and Tom Boone Town and Gown Award from the University of Montana for his ability to make education relevant by connecting education and research to the practice of economics.

He liked to ask his classes provocative questions loosely based on a current consulting case, such as "How much is it worth to you to go to Yellowstone in the winter?" When students heard questions phrased in personal terms, the relevance of economics became clear.

Additionally, he worked with the Mansfield Center and served as acting chair of Asian Studies. He diligently built educational bridges, securing grants for student and professional exchanges with other countries.

Besides being a popular professor, O'Donnell was in demand as an economics consultant, working for both plaintiff and defense attorneys. He served as an expert in many famous law cases in the United States. However, he was quick to announce he was not a "hired gun." Rather, he used complex formulas to prove damages and testified to what the numbers indicated was fair.

Dennis enjoyed supporting his family's interests. As such, when MaryEllen and Daphne were in a show at Missoula Community Theater in the 1980s, Den volunteered to run the lights. So started a meaningful relationship with MCT, where he eventually served as a board member for many years. He was incredibly proud to participate in the initiative that created MCT's present national headquarters.      

Den would say Parkinson's isn't for wimps, and he tackled it head-on. Even when his professional career was cut short because he could no longer teach or consult, he wrote a personal account appropriately entitled, “Taking on Parkinson's,” followed by a historical fiction novel, “Sunrise in the West.” He also served on the Summit for Parkinson's Board, which works with the Michael J. Fox Foundation on educational outreach.

Dennis was an athlete and outdoorsman throughout his life. While his dream of becoming a pro football player was scuttled because of a severe knee injury, Dennis enjoyed a lifetime of participating in sports. He could often be found skiing, riding his bike on trails ahead of MaryEllen (who rode her horse), flyfishing, engaging in all kinds of water sports, and playing golf. He loved the mountains and mountain lakes and once spent weeks in the wilderness with only his dog for companionship.

Later in life, a friend taught Dennis to play handball. He soon identified as a handball player, loved the game and the camaraderie, and happily brought "Whisky Friday" to the group.

Dennis also enjoyed times on the rivers with his son-in-law, Michael, and his nephew, Robert. Dennis loved talking with them about economics, life, and why the fish got away.

Books of all kinds were interesting for Dennis, and he took great pleasure in his weekly book club, where he felt fortunate to discuss books with friends. Den also had a passion for music and asked his wife to sing to him his entire life, forgiving her lost notes and tired voice during their 46 years of marriage.

Den had no greater joy than being with his grandchildren, and he was always eager to hear their stories and attend every celebration and activity he could.

Dennis is survived by his wife, MaryEllen Campbell; daughter Daphne Braun, son-in-law, Michael Braun, and grandchildren Madeline, Alexandra, Nicholas and Rachel; nephew Robert Campbell and family; niece Vivian Croft and family; sister Sharon O'Donnell and niece Briget and nephew Shawn.

He was preceded in death by his parents, Helen and Joseph O' Donnell, mother-in-law Viola Campbell, and brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Glenn and Jennifer Campbell.

Please, no flowers. Rather, consider singing as Den would, slightly off-key and with great enthusiasm, to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." We will miss Dennis greatly; he made our world quite wonderful.

A celebration of life was held at Missoula Children's Theater on Tuesday, Jan. 23, at 4 p.m. Please come as you are. Messages of condolence may be shared with the family online at www.lakefuneralhomeandcremation.com.

Arrangements are under the care of The Lake Funeral Home and Crematory.