On a particular Wednesday in late August, I sat down with Brenden Donahue to conduct an interview for this story. He’s an interesting guy with an interesting backstory, and we talked about all manner of things for 45 minutes. For example, I learned that he loves his community for how everyone looks out for one another. I learned that he earned his degree from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. And I learned that he was a hardworking young man who’d stepped away from playing baseball and began detailing cars when he was a teenager.
In fact, when he mentioned his love for baseball, I saw a flash resemblance of a young Babe Ruth streak across his face. But it was a three-minute excerpt from our final moments together that told me everything I needed to know about this parent, police officer, LaSalle County native, and community servant. I’d asked Brenden if he could share a moment from his life that knocked him down, disappointed him, or otherwise left him feeling flat. This question interests me, not so much for Exhibit A, but for Exhibit B— the follow-up; how we respond to disappointment or difficulty. Right away, I could see in his eyes that he had his answer. It took him no time at all to retrieve his moment.
He was a young police officer, just two years into the job with the Ottawa PD. He’d been working midnights and was seeing all sorts of different things you might expect an officer to see on late night duty shifts. He was enjoying his work, and he was good at it. But then he was called into The Chief’s office. The Chief, it seems, had ‘voluntold’ young Officer Donahue that he was being moved to D.A.R.E. duty at Shepherd Middle School. D.A.R.E. stands for Drug Abuse Resistance Education, and the Chief was pairing this role with that of SRO — School Resource Officer. Despite his protests of, “…but I don’t want to be the D.A.R.E. Officer,” it was happening, and it would mean working the day shift within the bounds of the school campus. No more night shifts, no more street patrols, no more traditional police work. Clearly disappointed, he told me— subconsciously shaking his head back and forth as he reminisced— that he didn’t even have kids at that point in life and really couldn’t see himself in a role where he’d be surrounded by them all day long! But his Chief saw it. And that was all that mattered.
Exhibit B: Within just a few days on the new beat, Brenden came to love the work, and even got tagged by the students with the nickname, “O.D.” for Officer Donahue, many of whom— now in their late twenties and early thirties— still shout it out when they see him around town. “I experienced so much in that role that informs who I am today,” he told me. “These kids are just amazing,” he tells me, “and if I had a magic wand, I’d use it to give opportunities and experiences to all of the children so they’d ALL be better prepared to succeed.”
Fast forward to the day his Chief retired in 2014. Brenden made a special point to thank him for what he had done all those years ago. “I don’t know what you saw in me,” he said, “but you picked the right guy.” Indeed he did.
Today, Brenden is the father of a little girl who loves to dance, the president of the Ottawa Elementary District 141 School Board, and a Sergeant with the Ottawa Police Department. His life is in balance precisely because of his willingness to remain open to the reality of disruption. It is in those moments when we step-up, however reluctantly, that we move to another level, and Brenden Donahue is Exhibit A, B, and C of just that.