I returned home last week from taking care of my dad following his stroke and found that Johnny Donnels had passed . Apparently he had been home one evening tossing a ball to his neighbor’s dogs when he tripped, fell and broke his hip. Although surgery to repair the broken bone was successful he suffered a fatal heart attack while recovering in the hospital. According to one account, he was with his great friend Matt Clark and his wife of 48 years, Joan, when he turned to Joan and said “we’ve had a wonderful day haven’t we?”, then fell asleep for the last time.
It’s a great story and one that Johnny would love telling, even it isn’t accurate, because Johhny loved telling stories. “He was an Irish storyteller,” said Joan.
Johhny was a fixture in the French Quarter for over 50 years, with a gallery in the building where Pat O’Briens oepned (he loved pointing out the corner where the after hours roullete wheel stood) and Tenessee Williams wrote a little play called “The Card Game”. You might know it better as “A Streetcar Named Desire”. His obituary in the Times Picayune called him a ” bon vivant renowned for his photos of the French Quarter and its colorful characters”. He was all that and more.
He loved sitting in his studio with the doors open and talking to everyone who came by. He especially liked telling them bad puns. I first encountered him that way 10 or 12 years ago and every time I came by he invited me to sit down and talked to me like a long lost brother. Well son actually. He loved it when I parked my Harley on the sidewalk in fornt of the shop, anything that was visually out of the ordianry pleased him immensely. And he seemed to know every artist who had ever been in the French Quarter. Sitting with him the phone would ring and it might be Kinky Friedman or Harry Anderson or Jerry Jeff Walker but he talked to them the same way he talked to stangers from Idaho or Vermont.
I guess he reminded me most of Will Rogers because he truly never seemed to meet a person he didn’t like. He was the kindest man I knew and a great friend to everyone who came across his path. I’m happy to say that mine did and I will miss him dearly.