Cpt. Justin “Salty” John Donnelly, USMC Tanker: July 6, 1941-January 5, 2018
At exactly 10:05 on January 5, 2018 my pops, Justin Donnelly, was pronounced dead. I don’t say “passed away,” or “moved on,” because I always felt like those phrases kind of half-assed someone dying. My pops did not half-ass anything in life, so he sure wouldn’t appreciate me doing something half-assed when it comes to his death (you don’t get the nickname “Salty” from other Marines because you were an easy going guy who let things slide off of your shoulder).
Any remarks about the life of Justin Donnelly need to start with the United States Marine Corps. He was prouder about being a Marine than just about anything else he did in his life. He joined the Marines because he thought it was the right thing to do, immediately volunteering for The Corps after graduating Fairfield University. His older brother Tom was a chopper pilot in the Marines, my pops, with his ubiquitous glasses, was decidedly not. The Corps looked at his putrid eyesight, and his marksmanship ability (he was fond of saying, “the safest place on a battle field was anywhere within 100 yards of me and my rifle, but if you give me a grease gun I can do fine”), and decided there was one, and only one, place to put Justin Donnelly; in a tank.
He was born to be a tanker. His personality was hard-charging, loud, and could at times be the scariest and safest thing to be around. He protected and helped others even to the point of his own detriment. He was a tank personified. Even after leaving the service he plastered his (always military green) cars with USMC Tanker Bumper stickers. If he was reading this right now he’d be pissed at me saying he died; as his favorite bumper sticker proclaimed, “Old Tankers Never Die, They Just Lose Track” (my pops loved… LOVED stupid humor–My childhood of Laurel & Hardy, the Three Stooges, and endless car rides listening to the Jack Benny Program can attest to this… and I loved my childhood for it).
While he was a Marine, and told some of the funniest stories about “rifles in little bitty bunches put,” the real purpose of his life was family. In the Marine Corps he was a part of one of the best, and protective, families the world has ever known. Outside of The Corps he tried to replicate that by building a family of his own (and tried to match it in size as well).
The Massive Justin Donnelly Family Tree
He started off with three sons: Justin (Jay), Stephen (Steve), and Sean (ummm Sean). He liked those three so much he ramped up his game and tacked on four more children with his best friend (my mom, Celia Moffie): Cassandra (Cassie–whom he loved more than his sons because he was a good judge of character), Jacob (yeah, me), Ezekiel (Zeke), and Hannah (the Wee One–whom everybody agrees is by far the best of us). He was the biological father of seven children, missing having a child in four straight decades because he skipped the 70s (for those keeping score; two in the 60s, none in the 70s, four in the 80s, and one in the 90s… woof).
The biological father of seven children, his family tree kept growing like a sturdy oak thanks to marriages and grandchildren. The man that loved with an unashamed passion treated all of his “in-laws” like full-blooded related. So Steve gave pops another daughter when he married Denice. The two of them gifted him his first grandchild in their lovely and talented daughter Aiden. They added another log to the flame with Hunter, who could talk for hours and even days with pops about military history (I am a military history buff, it is my belief that Hunter actually lives in the past with the vastness of his knowledge). In between Aiden and Hunter, Jay decided there weren’t enough Justins in the family, so he brought along a Justin of his own (Justin Bradford-JB).
If that is where the family of Justin Donnelly ended, it would be impressive, but why half-ass anything? Pops eventually found his way to his last wife and married Elaine O’Brien. Like the Brady Brunch, Elaine brought along a brood of her own, and pops had no qualms about bringing them into the fold. That meant the addition of John O’Brien and his wife Sara (and their beautiful daughter Elaine), Daniel O’Brien and his partner Meghan, and Tommy O’Brien.
He had a bunch of cancer scares throughout his life, so in response he ramped up his family production meter when he hit 75. In the final year and a half of his life he added a gorgeous and kind (a rarity around these parts) daughter in Sheila, wife of Sean. He went to India and gave Cassie away to her insanely intelligent and warm-hearted husband Sumant, and they eventually got married three times (stories for another day). By my final tally: sons (nine: Jay, Steve, Sean, Jake, Zeke, John, Danny, Tommy, Sumant), and daughters (four: Cassie, Hannah, Denice, Sheila), grandsons (two: JB and Hunter), and granddaughters (two: Aiden, and Elaine)… that’s 17. The Marines are known as the few and the proud… the Donnelly clan is only one of those things.
Justin Donnelly and a Love of Sports and Hustle
There are so many people that can attest my pops was a loving man. Although my mom and pops stopped being a married couple when I was 10, they never stopped caring for one another. They remained best friends throughout his life. The oddity of my dad’s love was that it was all encompassing and infected everybody around him. The mere fact that he was still best friends with his second wife while she became friends with his final wife is testament to that.
He loved The Corps, he loved his family, and he loved sports. He was a life long Red Sox fan and one of the fondest memories I and my brothers have, is of watching Game 4 of the 2004 World Series and in the first inning, he goes, “holy hell… they are actually going to win the World Series,” and then he walked upstairs content in knowing his prognostication would prove true, only coming back down for the ninth inning to watch Keith Foulk get the 27th out. (This story is in stark contrast to the one my mother tells from 1986 when my pops went to sleep with the Red Sox ahead against the Mets knowing they were going to lose, and my mom woke him up for the ninth inning…).
His love of sports translated into a love of coaching. He coached all of his children, and all of their friends… for five decades. He started as a basketball coach in the city of Waterbury, picking up his first gig in 1960, and he continued coaching various sports until finally calling it quits after coaching Hannah’s 8th grade basketball team in 2010. A loving coach who made even the worst players think they were the greatest athletes of all time, nobody made you feel better about executing the fundamentals properly like my pops. If you hustled down the baseline, it didn’t matter how far you were thrown out by… he would give you a high-five, a smile… and the loudest “way to go, good job,” you have ever heard. Fielding a ground ball and it took a bad bounce or you didn’t make the play, “who cares, but wonderful job getting your butt down!”
The opposite could be said for those that did not hustle. Little leaguers were expected to hustle, and major leaguers were expected to hustle. The man loved baseball. It was one of his greatest passions in life. Every summer he took us on a trip to some ballpark. One summer we went to Montreal to see the Expos. Nobody anywhere went to see the Expos. This was one of those games where even fewer people than normal attended the game. There may have been 3,000 people in the park. My pops (fairly deaf from all the years in a tank), had this big, booming voice. He expected everybody to play hard. Orlando Cabrera found that out the hard way.
On one occasion, Cabrera hit a grounder and jogged up the line. The infielder booted the ball, but Cabrera didn’t hustle and was thrown out by half a step. My pops let him have it… in a stadium with essentially nobody in it. Zeke and I were playing somewhere in the right field stands, my pops was located on the third baseline watching the game intently. The two of us could hear him yelling at Cabrera from right field, it was hilarious. If that is where the story ended, that would be enough. But of course it didn’t. Sometime later in the game Cabrera was at first base with two outs and there was a popup to left. Cabrera was jogging again and was halfway between second and third when the ball dropped in. After realizing the fielding gaffe he tried to turn on the jets, only to pull up at third base. If he was running even remotely hard, he would have scored easily… he didn’t… and had to stand on third base while my pops annunciated clearly, “that is the second time today Mr. Cabrera, THE SECOND TIME TODAY AND YOUR LACK OF HUSTLE COST YOUR TEAM A RUN!” Orlando Cabrera (who would be instrumental in bringing the Red Sox their 2004 World Series title), turned to my pops, put his head down, nodded as if to say, “you’re right, I’ll do better.” He later made a hustle play that sealed the win for the Expos and the loudest guy at Olympic Stadium was my pops.
I share that long-winded story, and this rambling obituary (fitting for me) because I didn’t want to half-ass his death. He lived life the right way and he said his only regret was becoming a lawyer. When his cancer returned for the final time and it was clear no medicine was going to help him, we asked him if he wanted to do anything, anywhere. He said, “no, I have lived my life the way I always wanted to, I have no regrets.” If he loved trains and particularly steam engines. In retirement he worked on the Essex Steam Train. His last big adventure was traveling the country on a train. He loved every second of it. His second to last big adventure was traveling to India to see his first daughter get married to a wonderful man.
We were all scared (because there are so many January birthdays and anniversaries in our family) that he would die on a significant date to somebody else. But no, a man that had two left feet, danced through the rain drops and died on January 5, 2018. He lived his life the way he wanted it, and I’m pretty damn sure he died the way he wanted to… well… that’s not actually true, he didn’t die… he just lost track.
Love you Pops.
Captain Justin “Salty” John Donnelly, USMC Tanker (Viet Nam: 1965-1966)
July 6, 1941-January 5, 2018