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O'Donnell to cap off career with sale of 10 McDonald's franchises

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One gutsy risk is sometimes all it takes to spark a lifelong career. Consider McDonald's restaurant franchise owner James L. O'Donnell, who is on the brink of retirement after a career that stretches back four decades.

As a 25-year-old with a take-charge attitude, Mr. O'Donnell in 1970 moved from Santa Monica, Calif., to open a McDonald's restaurant in Pennsylvania. Back then, the young entrepreneur had no clue that he later would become the face of the McDonald's franchise in the north country as the owner of 10 restaurants in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties.

Now, nearly 42 years later, the 66-year-old will cross the finish line of his career by selling his 10 restaurants and retiring. They are slated to be sold to McDonald's Corp. on Aug. 15.

The corporation called Mr. O'Donnell out of the blue last month to offer a lucrative deal for the stores, which all are posting a profit. Collectively, the stores employ some 750 full- and part-time workers during the summer, and 550 the rest of the year.

But “the fat lady hasn't sung yet,” Mr. O'Donnell said.

The corporation hasn't announced what it plans to do with the locations, although Mr. O'Donnell said he believes they all will stay open. “McDonald's needs markets to develop new products, and that would be a good reason to keep the stores open,” he said.

The way Mr. O'Donnell describes his career path is akin to a roller coaster ride full of ups and downs. Recalling the first restaurant he opened in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the Clayton resident couldn't hold back a chuckle. There was a good reason McDonald's wanted to get rid of that particular restaurant, he said.

“The store barked, it was such a dog,” he said, explaining that it was built on a hill in the middle of nowhere, where a mall supposedly was going to be built. Though he may have been green at the time, he said, the experience toughened him up in a hurry.

He remembers flipping burgers on the grill in the back while his first wife, the late Nancy T. O'Donnell, served customers.

“They told me I was the youngest operator who wasn't a second-generation owner — too young for the job,” he said, laughing. “But I learned to own an operation without money.”

In 1977, McDonald's Corp. pitched him a sale he couldn't pass up: two restaurants in Watertown, on Arsenal and State streets, along with outlets in Potsdam and Ogdensburg. After making those stores a success, he went on to launch several more stores over the next decade in Carthage, Lowville, Gouverneur, Calcium and Adams.

Describing him as an attentive owner who made sure his restaurants were doing quality work, McDonald's Marketing Director Bonnie J. Corbin said most employees knew Mr. O'Donnell on a first-name basis. She has worked alongside him for 23 years.

She said that when employees saw his truck pull into the parking lot, someone would invariably exclaim, “Jim's here!” A rush to make the restaurant presentable would ensue.

“It wasn't that they were afraid — they just always wanted to make sure they were doing their best and that it looked great when he walked through the door,” she said.

Mr. O'Donnell is known for his charitable works. One highlight was raising money for a church to provide winter coats and boots.

“It was really a down-home cause,” Mrs. Corbin said. “We help small charities out there that might not be eligible for big grants.”

What will Mr. O'Donnell miss the most in retirement?

“We helped a lot of people,” he said, adding that hundreds of teenagers landed their first job at his stores and went on to college. “High school kids are great. They sometimes think they know everything” but then find out that they “don't know too much when they try to serve breakfast Saturday morning, the busiest morning of the week.”

When he retires, Mr. O'Donnell plans to vacation in France with his wife, Martha H., who taught French at Watertown High School for more than two decades. Described as having a “flair for interior design,” Mrs. O'Donnell personally designed the layout of several remodeled McDonald's restaurants in the past decade.

The O'Donnells also plan to keep community service at the forefront. Mr. O'Donnell serves as a member of the Thousand Islands Performing Arts Fund, while Mrs. O'Donnell is a member of the Thousand Islands Arts Center, both in Clayton.

Others knew Mr. O'Donnell as a member of the Jefferson County Historical Society, Samaritan Medical Center board of trustees and Watertown Family YMCA board of trustees. Mrs. O'Donnell has served as a member of the Nature Conservancy of Northern New York, the Thompson Park Conservancy and the Jefferson Community College Foundation.

“We met some nice people, and you can make it fun by moving forward the community,” Mr. O'Donnell said.

Well known wherever they go, he said, the couple can't go to the supermarket without seeing someone they know — signaling the lives they've touched in their careers.

“It's been a wonderful trip,” Mr. O'Donnell said.

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