UNION, NJ — Every once in awhile that special teacher or coach enters the life of a student and changes it forever. And it seems that coach Robert O’Dell is that special someone.
The Union High School Track and Field Alumni Association started the Robert O’Dell Scholarship fund 14 years ago to honor coach and mentor Robert O’Dell and provide opportunities and resources to cross country, and track and field athletes with a $1,500 scholarship to one student each year.
O’Dell has had a long and illustrious career. Involved in track and field for 60 years, O’Dell made a name for himself throughout high school and college, where he competed and won many awards in track and field. His coaching career spanned many decades, working both as head and assistant coach. In addition, he worked with the Olympic Development committee for many years. He retired in 1993.
Joanne Hinsley, who graduated from Union High School in 1975, said O’Dell, who coached the track and field team at UHS, believed strongly in his students’ capabilities and has continued to be a source of inspiration throughout her life.
“He knew that I was capable of a job,” said Hinsley, who, as a UHS student and team member, managed the cross-country team. “He knew I was supposed to be the backbone. He told me that I was supposed to be the cog in the wheel.”
And there are many who feel that way about O’Dell, as evidenced by the large crowd of friends and classmates who gathered — as they have done every year for the last 14 years — at Cafe Z on Morris Avenue in Union last week for the annual banquet to honor the coach and to award scholarships to a few lucky recipients.
Graduating senior Anthony Okolo received a $1,500 for Athlete of the Year; Karen Azubuike received $250 for Manager of the Year, a new award named for O’Dell’s wife, June, who was the first female cross country and track manager in New Jersey. The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to UHS alumnus Dr. Anjan Chatterjee, a professor and chairman of the neurology department at Pennsylvania Hospital.
Hinsley said that honoring O’Dell in this way is gratifying. “Each year we enjoy the opportunity to meet a graduating senior, and his or her family, and to present them with the Robert O’Dell Scholarship,” said Hinsley. “This year the scholarship will be a $1,500 cash award. It has been very rewarding for us to be able to honor coach O’Dell with the scholarship in his name and we have had a legacy of very worthy recipients.”
Hinsley said the scholarship has grown over the years. “When they started it, it was a $500 scholarship,” Hinsley said.
O’Dell, who has kept in touch with his former students through the years, said at the banquet that he was touched when he was first told about the scholarship. “When the kids did this for me, it was special,” said O’Dell. “A teacher or coach gets a kid for such a short time. I’m very lucky because I get to see these kids and see how their lives are and what they’re doing.”
He added that he is both thrilled and proud of what his “kids” have accomplished. “I’m proud of all of them.”