John Donovan mourned as businessman, benefactor, family man
By Ray Lamont / Editor / Gloucester Times / April 28, 2015
Some remembered John J. Donovan III Monday as a successful businessman, one who not only grew and expanded Cape Ann’s biggest health and fitness club, but ran a working organic farm and launched and sold a string of start-up companies.
Others especially remembered him as a benefactor, who often accepted no credit or even thanks for his community contributions.
Still others remembered him as an accomplished airplane and helicopter pilot, whom — for all of his successes — was happiest and the most proud when talking about his wife, Megan, and their two young children.
Donovan, the well-known owner of the Manchester Athletic Club and a noted community benefactor who offered the town of Manchester land for what had been called the Donovan Park project, died Saturday at the age of 43 after a lengthy bout with adrenal cancer.
Donovan, who was named by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce as Manchester’s Business Person of the Year in 2013, died at home Saturday surrounded by his family, according to the notice submitted by the Campbell Funeral Home of Beverly for Monday’s Times.
But on Monday, business partners, colleagues, town officials and other across Cape Ann were speaking of his life — one packed with an extraordinary string of accomplishments for someone who would have turned 44 today.
“By the time he was 21 or 22, he was an accomplished fixed-wing and helicopter pilot,” recalled John Theo, a longtime friend and colleague of Donovan who worked with him on and off for 20 years — including as the Manchester Athletic Club’s vice president in charge of operations.
While many sang Donovan’s praises Monday as a community philanthropist, Theo noted that Donovan — who earned his undergraduate degree from Yale and a graduate degree from Harvard — never wanted to claim credit for his deeds.
Theo recalled that, as a pilot, Donovan would often fly children from around New England to Boston and back if they had to undergo cancer treatments. Yet while some organizations who carry out similar trips display logos on patches or jackets, Donovan adamantly refused to do so.
“He didn’t want anybody to know,” Theo said, “and he never drove a $50,000 Hummer – he drove a used, five-year-old Nissan truck. That’s just the way he was.
Theo said that, while many may have known Donovan as one who expanded the MAC to include facilities in Gloucester and Rowley — all while running an organic farm in Essex — he was more proud of his family than of any business achievements.
“He was happiest and the most proud when he was with and talking about Megan and the kids,” he said. “They meant the world to him.”
Donovan’s business achievements drew a fair amount of recognition. In 2013, already battling the cancer that would take his life, he was named Manchester’s Small Business Person of the Year by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.
“He was an extraordinarily accomplished man — just a multi-multi-talented individual and, I think, a great business person,” said Peter Webber, the Cape Ann chamber’s senior vice president. “It’s a huge loss to the community. On behalf of the chamber I want to express our sincere condolences to his family.”
But it was Donovan’s community roles that drew most of the accolades Monday.
Most recently, Donovan had offered land to the town of Manchester in 2013 for what came to be called the Donovan park project. But while the town formed a committee to develop the park, Town Meeting voters last year turned down a plan for funding the development of the fields and a track.
The Donovan Park Committee revised a plan earlier this year, but later dropped the proposal while facing more town funding questions.
“I know he was highly disappointed,” said Tom Kehoe, who chairs the town’s Board of Selectmen. He noted however, that, even after the park plan was pulled off the table earlier this year, Donovan followed through and deeded the 33 acres of conservation land to the Trustees of Reservations.
“He still wanted to follow through, and make sure that land was there for the people of Manchester, Essex, Gloucester all around the region to be able to visit, hike and enjoy.”
“While a member of the Donovan Ad Hoc Committee,” said Greg Blagden, who led the town’s effort behind the Donovan Park proposal, “I had the opportunity to come to know John as a genuine human being who truly wanted to do something positive that would have a lasting impact in our community — so much so that he spent the last two years working closely with the project.
“Unfortunately, the field project did not pass the financing proposal,” he added, “but being true to who John was, he graciously continued to donate 30 acres of conservation land.”
Blagden also recalled a time when Donovan simply gave away the free use of another piece of his property for a youth soccer program.
“When the school building project took place,” he recalled, “it took some of the town fields off line. So basically our entire program was shut down — we had a 400 kids and no fields.”
“I reached out to different folks in the area, I contacted John, and he said he had a field for the kids to play on (Brady Field, adjacent to the MAC complex),” Blagden said. “He just said take whatever time you need, use the field as much as you want — so our children had a place to play for the entire year. it all came off without a hitch — thanks to him.”
Keith Callahan, the MAC’s current general manager, and others said that was typical. Donovan quietly gave to all sorts of local causes, including a number of student scholarship programs. But, just as often he would insist that his contributions be made anonymously.
Callahan recalled that, when he first came began working with Donovan, he asked him what he wanted for his clubs.
“He told me he wanted this to be a business that was just embedded in the community,” he said, “one that the community would see as a resource and one that would give back to the community. That was all he talked about — community. That was a real mantra for John.”
He and Theo also noted that Donovan thought the world of the MAC’s 170-plus workers — a figure that makes the athletic club among the town’s top employers.
“His staff is so loyal — it’s a rarity — people are just devastated,” Theo said. “And you don’t learn how to inspire that — you’ve either got it or you don’t.
“He had it,” Theo said. “He did so much, and meant so much, to so many people.”