Richard K. Donahue Print E-mail

Richard K. Donahue

Aide to President John F. Kennedy,

Richard K. Donahue, prominent attorney, aide to President John F. Kennedy, former president and chief operating officer for NIKE, Inc., leading citizen of his beloved hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, patriot, and devoted husband of Nancy Lawson Donahue, died Tuesday September 15, 2015 at his home in Lowell. He was 88 years old.
Born on July 20, 1927 in Lowell, Massachusetts, he was the son of Joseph P. Donahue, Esq. and Dorothy F. (Riordan) Donahue.
After his discharge from the United States Navy in 1946, Donahue received his A.B. from Dartmouth College in 1948 and his LL.B from Boston University in 1951. While attending BU Law School he met his wife-to-be Nancy Lawson on Joy Street in Boston. They were married in 1953.
Upon being admitted to the Massachusetts Bar, Donahue worked at the family law firm as a trial attorney focusing on criminal and civil defense. He was a highly skilled trial lawyer and became known for his proficient cross examinations. Based on peer review he was admitted as a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers in 1970. All the while he remained active in the Democratic Party and the Greater Lowell community.
Donahue first met Jack Kennedy in 1952, during a political luncheon at the Rex in Lowell, when the third-term congressman was running for the U.S. Senate. "I was intrigued with him and hopped on board," Donahue said in a Lowell Sun interview. "For an Irish-American, he was the Second Coming."
A friend and protégé of Larry O’Brien and Kenny O’Donnell, Dick Donahue became a key player in the grass roots organizing of John F. Kennedy’s campaigns for the U.S. Senate and President.
In his acclaimed book The Making of the President 1960, Theodore White immortalized John F. Kennedy's team of volunteers in West Virginia, where a religiously charged primary campaign proved momentous in American political history.
Kennedy's team included Donahue, described by White as a "coruscatingly brilliant young lawyer from Lowell, Massachusetts."
In a September 2010 interview Donahue defined “coruscating”.
"It means 'flashing.' Teddy White was unbelievably good but the Kennedy family suspected I wrote the book," he added with a slight grin. "To be called brilliant and not have the Kennedy name after it was considered dangerous."
Donahue went on to serve as a delegate for Massachusetts during the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Following the election Donahue was instructed by the President-elect to help Kenny O’Donnell form the staff of the new administration.
Donahue served as Assistant to the President in the White House from 1960 to 1963 acting as liaison between the White House and Congress. He worked alongside Lawrence F. O’Brien, Jr., Kenneth P. O’Donnell, Charles U. Daly, David F. Powers and Ralph A. Dungan – a group more commonly known as Kennedy’s Irish Mafia -- or “Murphia,” as Jackie Kennedy was known to quip.
In September 1963, Donahue returned to Lowell to resume his law career at Donahue & Donahue, one of the premier law firms in the Commonwealth founded by his grandfather, Daniel J. Donahue.
“Dick Donahue was a skillful and competent lawyer and a courageous advocate for public and legal reform,” said his close friend Paul Sugarman, one of the Commonwealth’s most successful and respected trial attorneys.
“He was never reluctant to be out in front of issues he believed in even though they were unpopular with the establishment. He worked for revolutionary, and much needed court reform at a time when the status quo was favored by those in charge,” added Sugarman, a former Dean and Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School and former Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers.
“Dick Donahue was not only a great trial attorney who perfected the art of storytelling but also he was a lawyer's lawyer who had great respect for his profession and who firmly believed that it called upon us all to give back.  'Lawyer Donahue' -- which is how he humbly answered his phone at the office -- will be sorely missed but never forgotten" said Attorney Andrea Batchelder who worked for, and then with, Donahue for over 20 years.
In 1977 Senator Edward M. Kennedy charged Donahue with heading the Massachusetts Judgeship Selection Committee which was responsible for filling four vacant spots in the federal judiciary. Then in 1980, Senator Kennedy again called on Donahue this time to revive his flagging presidential campaign by assuming the leadership role for the New York state primary. Donahue’s role of managing Kennedy's successful New York primary upset of President Jimmy Carter was summed up best by Donahue “I came here in a cab. I’m going out in a limousine.”
Donahue held leadership and executive positions in legal associations locally, regionally and nationally. He was a former president of the New England Bar Association and two-term president of the Massachusetts Bar Association from which he received the Gold Medal in 1979. Donahue served as the Chairman of the Board of Bar Overseers and the Massachusetts Bar Association Commission on Professionalism. He also served on the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and as chairman of the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Committee for the ABA.
In December 2006, Donahue accepted a three-year suspension from practicing law for allegedly crossing ethical boundaries in the Demoulas supermarket family feud in the 1990s. Donahue’s involvement in the disciplinary matter ultimately resulted in the state Supreme Judicial Court reinstating him to the bar in good standing.
In 1984, Donahue became a Founding Board Member of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, the non-profit organization created to provide financial support, staffing, and creative resources for the federally operated John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. A major contributor to the foundation, he served as vice chairman of the Board for 29 years.
As the first Chairman of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award Committee, Donahue helped create and launch in 1989 the prestigious award for political courage that is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. Donahue served and chaired the bipartisan committee from its inception through 1996.
In addition to his law career, Donahue served on the Board of Directors for NIKE, Inc. and would go on to become President and Chief Operating Officer from 1990-1994. In 2008, he retired as Vice-Chair from the board having served since 1977.
On June 20, 1990, the New York Times wrote, “With 11 children, Richard K. Donahue has a demanding audience, but his recent appointment as president and chief operating officer of NIKE Inc. appears to be a crowning achievement.”
''I have worked everywhere from the White House down. This job is the only thing that has impressed my kids,'' Donahue commented.
In 2004 Donahue was named Irishman of the Year by the Friends of the John F. Kennedy Library. The award was presented annually by the Friends to honor President Kennedy’s love of his own Irish heritage.
Recognizing this honor, Caroline Kennedy wrote to Donahue, “One of the greatest things about my father was the people he chose to help him achieve his vision for America. For both John and me, getting to know you has been one of the best ways of learning about him, and understanding the meaning of friendship that crosses the generations. This Library has been so lucky to benefit from your insight, judgment, loyalty and generosity. I want you to know that for me, you are not just the Irishman of the Year, you are the Irishman of all time.”
Were Donahue to be asked whom he most admired in this world, it would be his community-minded wife of 62 years, Nancy Lawson Donahue with whom he has raised 11 children. The name Donahue is synonymous with the arts and philanthropy. Together they supported and served on many non-profit boards in the Greater Lowell area. "When I think of Dick and his incredible successful life, I can't help thinking of Nancy at the same time,” said George Duncan, the founder and Chairman of the Enterprise Bank. “What they have accomplished together as a team is unmatched and the legacy they are leaving will affect our lives long into the future."
From 1976 to 1990 Donahue served on the Board of Trustees at the University of Lowell (now University of Massachusetts at Lowell) serving as chairman for the final three years. In 1979, the Donahues help found the Merrimack Repertory Theatre which they have supported for the last 37 years.
Donahue was a cofounder and chair of the Greater Lowell Community Foundation.  He also served on the board and as chair of the Lowell Plan, Inc. He was a director of The Joyce Foundation in Chicago where he served with a young attorney and community organizer named Barack Obama. He is a former director of EPITOPE, Inc. and of the Courier Corporation, and was a member of the Oregon State Board of Higher Education and on the board of visitors of the University of Oregon School of Law in Eugene.
Charles U. Daly, the last surviving member of President Kennedy’s Irish Mafia, was recruited by Donahue in 1988 to lead the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Foundation for the next thirteen years. When notified of his close friend’s death Daly said:
"Civic responsibility and public service were in Dick's blood. He brought direction and soul to every endeavor. He was as gracious to the Kennedy Library and Foundation staffs as he was to heads of state and other VIPs, always with an irreverent sense of humor and zealous passion for life.
“From the Library's earliest days he was a guiding force,” Daly continued. “He was always generous with his time, wise counsel and resources. Not one of the May 29th Library dinners celebrating President Kennedy's birthday really began until Dick and Nancy arrived accompanied by a family entourage including many of their 11 children, spouses and a select few grandchildren. They were fun.
“For more than half a century, in glorious times and sad, this special guy was a treasured friend. I will miss him until the day I die," said Daly.
“With all his achievements he remained modest and unassuming,” said his friend Paul Sugarman. “He was an elegant man, smart, well intentioned, practical, sincere, witty and always ahead of his time.”
Richard K. Donahue is survived by his wife Nancy and his 11 children Abigail (Donahue) and her husband Scott Morris of Kirkland, WA, Timothy J. Donahue and his wife Jenni of Parkdale, OR, Michael R. Donahue and his wife Elizabeth of Lowell, Nancy C. Donahue and her husband Stephen Joncas of Lowell, Richard K. Donahue, Jr and his wife Laurie of Rye, NH, Daniel J. Donahue of Lowell, Stephen J. Donahue of Burlington, VT, Christopher P. Donahue and his wife Tracy of Palm City, FL  , Tara (Donahue) Gabriel and her husband Jorge of Tyngsborough, Philip A. J. Donahue of Lowell and Alicia A. Donahue and her husband Robert L. Sheketoff of Lancaster, MA and 16 beloved grandchildren.
He is also survived by his sisters Dorothy (Donahue) Sullivan of Westford, MA, Catherine Donahue of Falmouth, MA, and his brother David Donahue of Winchester, MA as well as many nieces and nephews. He was predeceased by his brothers Daniel J. Donahue of Barrington, IL, and Joseph P. Donahue, Jr of Lowell and by his sister Margaret (Donahue) Raney of Lowell, MA. He is also survived by a host of longtime friends especially his best friend Charles U. Daly.

Donahue – In his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts, September 15, 2015, Richard K. Donahue, prominent attorney, aide to President John F. Kennedy, former President of Nike, Inc. and beloved husband of Nancy L. Donahue. Friends may call for visitation at ST. PATRICK CHURCH, 282 Suffolk St. in LOWELL from 3 to 7 P.M. Monday (September 21st) and Tuesday (September 22nd). His Funeral Mass will be celebrated Wednesday morning in ST. PATRICK CHURCH at 11 o’clock. Committal Services will follow at St. Mary Cemetery in North Tewksbury. E-condolences/directions at Those wishing may make contributions in his memory to the Greater Lowell Community Foundation, 100 Merrimack St., Suite 202, Lowell, MA, 01852 or the Immaculate Conception Church Bldg Fund, 3 Fayette St., Lowell, MA 01852. Arrangements by the O’DONNELL FUNERAL HOME – LOWELL – (978 or 866)-458-8768.   

Condolences (9)
  • Blake Galvin & Family
    I just heard about your Dad's passing. Sorry I was unable to attend his services, but I've been traveling on business. Quite an accomplished man your Dad was, but from those of you who I know (and that's most of you), his biggest accomplishment was the family and kids he and your mother raised. My condolences to all of you, but especially to my pal, Mike, and my old friend and classmate, Tara.
  • Francis M. Raney jr. Lowell,
    I'm sorry I couldn't be there, may care and love of those around you provide comfort and peace to get you through the days ahead. My most sincere condolences.
  • Nathaniel Harrison  - Gratitude
    I recall Mr. Donahue with great fondness. When I was a new and inexperienced reporter for the Lowell Sun in the mid 70s he always had time for me, returning phone calls and explaining points of law. I'll always be grateful for that. I offer my sincere condolences to his family. Nathaniel Harrison, Watertown, Massachusetts
  • Alan and Mariel Sherburne
    We wish to extend our sincere sympathy for the loss of a great and generous man.
  • Rich Birke  - A great man, a great life
    I grew up in Lowell and first met Dick Donahue before I could walk. He and my dad were friends. Dick and Nancy were inspiring at many points in my life, from childhood through law school to a job in Lowell to becoming a professor in Oregon. Dick -- with Nancy -- was there at every pivot, ready and steady. Seeing them made me realize it was possible to work hard, give back and still have a wonderful family and a humble demeanor. I'll always be grateful to Lawyer Donahue and remember him fondly.
  • Peggy Shannon
    So sorry for the loss of your father. He certainly had a wonderful life and was a great and very successful man. My thoughts are with you.
  • Maureen Spinney  - Our sincere sympathies
    May happy memories bring you peace. Thank you for being such a good friend to MCC and Nesmith House, as well as my neighbor, Nancy!
  • Sean Harmon
    It is one of my great blessings to have got to know him and to be able to call him a friend and a guide.
  • Philip &Lynne Scannell  - Gloucester,Ma.
    a wonderful neighborhood friend,so many times full of laughter & fun such memory's,and the best gift his family.. Thanks. From your old paperboy...
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