It was “The United States Presidents,” a heavier read for most second graders. At the end of reading time, the teacher isn’t able to pry the book from the child’s hands. The obsessed reader refused to put the book away, and that altercation led to a life-changing discovery. That was how Michael O’Donnell, a Castleton State College junior, was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a type of autism. O’Donnell says his AS is often mistaken for Turrets Syndrome, or Attention Deficit Disorder. The beginning of grade school went pretty normal, but O’Donnell said he started to feel out of place around sixth grade. He didn’t feel like he had all of the sudden become an outcast, but it made him feel like he was a lot different from his peers.
His mother, Ann O’Donnell, talked about his upbringing and the signs that things were a little different with Michael.
“When he was 2 he wasn’t talking. He started to read at 4, he would read the license plates in the parking lot.”
Her son was also reading countries on a globe in a preschool program, Ann said. She said Mike learns best when he is on a strict schedule.
“He can’t just wing it,” she said.
Now behind brown brimmed glasses, and underneath a blue and gold Michigan hat, Mike still reads up on the Presidents of United States. A lot of time has passed since he was diagnosed and now Mike embraces the situation and looks ahead to what he plans on doing in life.
“When I get involved in something I take it seriously,” O’Donnell said, shifting his legs into Indian style, a frequent pose for him. “If I’m passionate about it, I can’t stop. That’s how I am with the radio station.”
Down in the dungeon of Haskell Hall, O’Donnell broadcasts as one of the Castleton WIUV disc jockey’s. Every Saturday night, like clockwork, Mike’s voice comes on air right after the end of Iron Maiden.
“91.3 WIUV Castleton, you’re listening to Saturdays with Mike,” he says, introducing the program. “We’re going to start you off with a song, which will hopefully inspire some Red Sox fans.”
Tessie, by the Dropkick Murphys, rocked the airwaves just before the world of sports was broken down to listeners, along with some other motivational music to accompany the college football talk. O’Donnell , the stations sports director, matches his song selections on air, with what’s happening in sports. The Red Sox made a comeback, again, and found a way to game 7 of the American League Championship.
O’Donnell played Don’t Stop Believing by Journey right after he spoke about the Sox, to motivate Sox Nation to keep the faith alive. The entire time O’Donnell preached to fellow Sox fans, he multitasked by checking up on Phillies statistics.
“I listen to his show on Saturday nights,” said Michael DelDotto, a Castleton sophomore. “He makes good points and keeps the hope alive for us New England fans.”
When on air, O’Donnell shows the poise of Mike Golic on ESPN radio, able to improvise on the spot in a moment’s notice. When O’Donnell couldn’t find a piece of paper with college football facts on it, he quickly jumped into the Penn State game against Michigan. For listeners, this improve goes unnoticed. The enthusiasm in his voice as he recaps exciting plays, and forecasts next week’s match-ups, derives from the passion O’Donnell has for broadcasting. He said he would most like to be a sports announcer.
“There will be obstacles, but I want to overcome them,” O’Donnell said, beginning to address his noticeable speech impediment, a major obstacle for a broadcast journalism major. “I want to continue getting my speech impediment fixed, but unfortunately Vermont doesn’t have the resources I need for speech help.”
O’Donnell says he plans on getting help with his speech when he returns to New Hampshire, but was quick to point out others who have overcome the same problem.
“Barbara Walters was made fun of on Saturday Night Live in the 80s for her speech impediment. Keith Olbermann, and Tom Brokaw also overcame speech issues,” he said.
Over the radio waves, O’Donnell is in control, confident, and running the show. In the classroom, the cafeteria, and the dorms, he perceives himself as shy and naive. He said part of his AS makes him hyper and energetic when he meets people for the first time, saying that often leads to one of two reactions.
“Hi, it’s nice to meet you too,” he said of one reaction, or his not so favorite, “Okay, dude, you need to calm down.”
“Living with Mike was an experience,” Josh Manley, a former suite mate said. “He was a great guy to have around. He was always entertaining, whether he was singing, or acting out a scene from south park.”
Other suite mates talked about his work ethic and attention to detail with his school work.
“He was always saying how stressed out, and tired he was,” said Morgan Sasso, smiling for a second before adding. “I miss living with that kid, though.”
Tuesday and Thursday mornings O’Donnell can be found in Professor Thomas Conroy’s mass media and society class. Before class he might recap the election, or maybe chat it up a little about a classmates new puppy. But once the class begins, it’s all business, and the passion for politics eclipses any other senseless material. Conroy not only has O’Donnell as a student, but also an advisee.
“He is very involved, and very engaged,” said Conroy, noting O’Donnell’s knack to stay on top of school work. “He’s enthusiastic, and speaks his mind. He is not shy about speaking up.”
For the majority of Castleton students, if a year goes by and a student hasn’t met “Mikey” yet, the school year at C-Rock wasn’t the full experience. Most students wait for a group of friends to go to Huden Dining Hall with, but if O’Donnell misses the packs visit to the cafeteria, he braves the journey alone. Even though he sees himself as shy, O’Donnell has the ability to sit with anyone in the lunchroom, no matter what social group they belong to. The table can be filled with athletes, preps, skateboarders, study bugs, or any other college student found dining. The group at the table makes room, and O’Donnell squeezes in at the final spot. It’s a true testament to the number of people who appreciate his company.
“It seems like Mike has found a home at Castleton,” Conroy said.