As love affairs go, theirs didn’t last long.
It was less than three years from the time Barbara Adams and Tom O’Donnell met as students at the University of Montana in 1940, fell head over football cleats and tennis whites for each other, got married, and experienced the most tragic of separations.
In late May 1943, word reached his bride in Missoula that O’Donnell, a captain in the U.S. Army after captaining the Grizzly football team, had died heroically in the Battle of Attu in the Aleutian Islands.
“She never stopped mourning,” Tomie Zuchetto said Monday morning.
The heart-rending story of Adams and O’Donnell was featured in the Missoulian on Valentine’s Day, a couple of months after Adams died in Billings at age 97. She left most of her estate to UM to create a scholarship in O’Donnell’s name.
The amount astounded the folks at the UM Foundation. It was a bit over $2 million.
Zuchetto is a niece of O’Donnell’s and his namesake. She was the daughter of his younger brother Bill.
A hospice social worker in Spokane, she and husband John were in town to meet Rosemary Lee, a cousin of Adams and executor of her estate. Lee and her husband Dick drove over from Bozeman, 200 miles the other direction, to meet the Zuchettos for the first time.
“We knew of each other , and we talked for the first time shortly after (Adams) died,” Zuchetto said.
The couples with little else in common compared scrapbooks, swapped stories and showed each other the likes of O’Donnell’s letter sweater and his “M blanket.”
They strolled across the campus where the Lees themselves went to school in the early 1960s. With the help of the UM Foundation’s Leana Schelvan and Shannon Stage, they located a red brick bearing O’Donnell’s name among hundreds in the Centennial Circle on the Little Oval.
It left Zuchetto mystified. She had a picture of an O’Donnell brick and another just below with Adams’ name on it. A dozen steps further, her sharp-eyed husband solved the mystery.
“Here’s one that says Thomas Barton O’Donnell, Class of 1941,” John Zuchetto said.
Sure enough, nestled up beneath it was another that read “Barbara Adams O’Donnell, Class of 1942.”
All three $150 bricks were sponsored by Adams after the Centennial Circle was established in 1993.
The tour continued to the lobby of Schreiber Gym outside the Reserve Officers Training Corps office. Adams earned her pilot license during her time at UM. She was on the women’s rifle team and captured the school’s singles tennis championship. Later she reached the semifinals of the women’s state tournament.
Her most fateful appointment was as chair of the Sadie Hawkins Day committee, a girl-ask-boy tradition she brought to Missoula from the University of Kentucky, where Adams went for a year after high school. The talented, dark-haired beauty presented the idea to the M Club, whose president was a quiet Wyoming man named Tom O’Donnell.
Besides playing football well enough to merit an invitation to play for the New York Football Giants, O’Donnell was in ROTC at UM. A glass case displays his Purple Heart, the Distinguished Service Cross that Barbara received in a ceremony on the UM Oval five months after his death, a Scabbard and Blade mug, and other memorabilia.
To be accurate, Rosemary Lee wasn’t a first cousin to Adams. Her mother, Julia Caldwell Mitchell, was. The two grew up together in Billings.
“I’ve always known Barbara, but just as my mother’s cousin until we were the ones who lived nearest and could care for her sometimes,” Lee said.
For the eight years before Adams died, the Lees made frequent trips from Bozeman to Billings to help care for her, pay her bills and collect her mail.
Adams was a hoarder, and it fell to the Lees to clean out mountains of boxes, albums and keepsakes after she died.
Tomie Zuchetto said she always knew of Barbara through her father, but didn’t meet her until about 15 years ago. Adams later married Hal Genest, who died in 1974. She and a companion were traveling through Spokane and she looked up Zuchetto. They met for coffee at the Shriners hospital where Zuchetto worked at the time.
“She was very sweet and inquisitive,” said Zuchetto. “We were getting to know each other, so she asked a lot of questions about my life and the family and the kids.”
As the years passed, Adams and Zuchetto communicated by phone and through letters.
“That’s when I became aware how much she was still in mourning over him,” Zuchetto said.
Tom O’Donnell once told Adams he’d be happy any place the winds of war blew him as long as she was by his side. It was her life’s regret that when he had a choice of going to Florida as an Army training officer or going to battle, she left it to him to decide. He chose active service and joined the 32nd Infantry Regiment.
In a letter to Zuchetto two years ago, Adams wrote, “I’ve missed Tom, needed Tom, loved Tom all these years more than anyone will ever know. We could have had the most wonderful marriage and family and been so happy with our great love for each other.”
As a hospice worker Zuchetto sees such laments often.
"But not to that degree,' she said. "I can tell you never have I seen someone mourning 70 years later.”
Now they’re both gone, but their love affair and its legacy live on.
According to Adams’ wishes, the Thomas Barton O’Donnell Endowed Scholarship will be awarded to “any students who could not afford college without it.”
Starting this fall and for years to come, it will support scores of UM students.
And on Monday, two women connected only by the briefest of marriages before either was born, became friends on the campus where it all began.
“I’m happy we met after hearing about each other for all these years, and that we were able to share with each other more memories of Tom and Barbara,” said Lee, who hopes the university will accept some of the memorabilia she saved from cleaning out Adams' home in Billings.
“I feel like Tom and Barbara’s time here at this university was obviously a very important time in their lives, and she wanted some way to remember that by,” said Zuchetto.
“Being able to come here today and share her stories with a group of people who are genuinely interested in what they had, and the fact that she never stopped loving Tom and really wanted everybody to know ... I think that was important. “