Alum Leaves $2 Million for Scholarship in Memory of Husband She Lost in 1943
Barbara Adams didn’t know her life would change when she attended the “M” Club meeting in 1940. As a freshman at the University of Kentucky, she had enjoyed the Sadie Hawkins dance. When she transferred to the University of Montana her sophomore year, she thought it would be a fun addition to the social scene. She came to the meeting to see if the club would sponsor the dance.
Running the meeting that day was the club’s president, Tom O’Donnell. Captain of the Grizzly football team, Tom was a Wyoming man. Quiet and kind, he was a natural leader. That night he walked her back home to the Kappa Alpha Theta house. They connected instantly.
They dated all that year and into the next, marrying in Monterey, California, on January 18, 1942, alongside another UM couple. Barbara wore a blue crepe dress and a corsage of white orchids. The girls served as each other’s maid of honor.
Like many in their generation, Tom and Barbara served their country in the military. They both joined the ROTC, and Barbara earned her pilot’s license. Tom graduated from UM in 1941; Barbara in 1943.
Their future together seemed so bright.
During Tom’s senior year, the New York Giants’ co-owner Wellington Mara invited him to play professional football. The Grizzlies asked him to be an assistant coach. He turned them both down. The day after graduation, he joined the U.S. Army.
He was stationed in California, then offered a permanent post in Florida. He again declined. He felt strongly called to serve his country in active duty, and was soon scheduled for a transport to Alaska, where the U.S. was engaged with the Japanese. He shipped out on April 13, 1943.
Leading his company in an attack against Japanese forces on the island of Attu, Tom was wounded in the neck and shoulder. His boyhood friend from Casper, Harold Hunter, died in the battle. Three days later, though weak with pain, he told his commanding officer he wanted to fight. He returned to leading his company and six days after that, was wounded again, this time mortally. It was May 26, 1943.
For his grit, leadership and courage, Tom was posthumously awarded the distinguished service cross. Standing on the Oval in front of Main Hall, Barbara accepted it on his behalf. She was 23. He had been 24.
It was a life cut short, a love full of potential and promise never realized. Though she later remarried – and had a diverse career crisscrossing the western United States with Pan Am, Stanford University, the Boeing Company and ultimately the Billings School District – Barbara Adams Genest never got over Tom.
“I’ve thought of him every day for 75 years,” she wrote in a letter in 2015. “What a wonderful and happy life we could have had together. He would have gone so far. He came so far in his short life.”
Several years ago, Barbara contacted the UM Foundation to let us know UM was in her will. She wanted to set up a scholarship in Tom’s name, to honor his memory and support other students like him. The Foundation’s planned giving staff helped her prepare the paperwork to ensure her gift would be used as she wished.
On December 1, 2017, at age 97, Barbara passed away at home in Billings.
Thanks to her extraordinary generosity, the UM Foundation accepted a gift of just over $2 million that will create the Thomas Barton O’Donnell Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship will be awarded to “any students who could not afford college without it,” per Barbara’s wishes. Beginning next fall, the endowment will support scores of students every year.
The gift’s size is even more remarkable considering Barbara was not a significant donor to UM during her lifetime; before this, her largest gift had been $300.
“Barbara Genest’s story is extraordinary,” says Cindy Williams, the Foundation’s president and CEO. “To honor the history of her and Tom’s love story, which started here at UM, she has created an opportunity for generations of students in the future. We could not be more grateful, and look forward to celebrating Tom’s leadership and heroic service to his country each year when UM awards this scholarship.”
This news article appeared the week Barbara O’Donnell accepted her husband’s distinguished service cross.
Thomas O'Donnel received an official certificate of merit outlining his bravery in battle.
Mike Mansfield made remarks before the House of Representatives on November 24, 1943, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Senator Mansfield, who had taught Tom O’Donnell at UM, shared the soldier’s story as a representation of the sacrifice so many were making.