Search site


Mr W R (Bill) ODonnell

William R O'Donnell

Members will be very sorry to hear of the death, in April, of Mr W R (Bill) ODonnell, former Senior Lecturer and Head of the Department of Linguistics and Phonetics. Mr Lee Davidson, Senior Fellow and long-standing friend and colleague, has contributed the following obituary of Mr ODonnell:

Bill O'Donnell, who died in April 2006, joined the staff of the School of English in 1969. He joined the section of English Language and General Linguistics led by Professor T F Mitchell. Bill came from an unusual background. His academic career had been fostered in the sixties by Professor Angus McIntosh at Edinburgh University, and Bill had worked his way through teaching in schools, a distinguished university career in Edinburgh and service in teacher training in Scotland before he came to Leeds. He moved to Leeds at the time when Linguistics had expanded rapidly and, partly under the influence of Angus McIntosh, it was hoped that English Language Teaching would benefit from a closer relationship between teaching practice in the field and the new wave of academic research. Bills main role in the department was to provide that link between Linguistics and language teaching which was necessary for the academic core of the MA programme in Linguistics and English Language Teaching, created as one of the new wave one-year MAs in the late 1960s. That task he performed with great distinction. His common-sense attitude to the wilder academic theories which flourished at the time, and his solid grounding in the real world suited him ideally to directing the studies of a wide range of teachers of English as a second/foreign language who joined the MA in the next decade and a half.

The earlier stages of Bill's career are relevant at this point. He had seen war service as a munitions specialist in the Middle East in the latter days of World War II, and particularly during the British involvement in Greeces subsequent troubles. He maintained a close contact with Greece and with Greek students thereafter. He had worked in the Rhodesian Railways. These experiences, combined with his sharp academic mind, gave him a remarkable authority in his classes. He took on the frankly terrifying task of explaining in detail how the new transformational theories of grammar flowing from Chomskys pen could be made to work and he was able to demonstrate that they would not always work as outlined. At one point he had two hours of classes a week on this area alone. He devoted many hours to counselling students with problems, and maintained active correspondence with students all over the world in the years after they left Leeds. Their experiences in Bills classes were a major part of their good memories of Leeds.

Bill was not a natural university politician, but he supported Professor Mitchell closely at the time when the independent Department of Linguistics split off from the School of English in 1971, and again when that Department was combined with the Department of Phonetics to form the Department of Linguistics & Phonetics in 1978. He did not love the diplomatic manoeuvres these organisational changes made necessary, but he carried them out with a strong sense of duty. Later he served as head of the newly unified department, and had much to do with the work associated with its unified accommodation in the basement of the Michael Sadler building. He retired in 1983.

With Dr Loreto Todd of the School of English he published the popular textbook Varieties of Contemporary English in 1980. He successfully supervised a wide range of doctoral theses, including one whose title, A synchronic study of ing forms in contemporary English, proved immensely attractive to journalists, who were puzzled that the author could fill two solid volumes (in the days before word limits) about such a short word fragment.