‘Kind Of An Amazing Place To Grow Up’ — Chris O’Donnell

I can still name every neighbor we had growing up on White Oak Lane. My kids always laugh because when we come back to Chicago, I want to go up and down all those familiar streets. I show them the route I used to take to school every day and the streets I’d take to get to town. And I tell them who used to live in every single house in the neighborhood. Growing up, that was the best, knowing everybody who surrounds your daily life, and on Halloween, knowing which houses gave better candy than others. I was very fortunate to grow up in a town like Winnetka. It was a terrific community in a safe environment. I was fortunate our parents plopped us down there.

We lived in this beautiful, red-brick house on a classic Winnetka street. We had previously owned the house next door and it had a big yard; so, my parents were able to chop off the yard, sell the original house, and build a new home on the lot next door. It was a beautiful home in a great neighborhood. It’s funny. It’s Winnetka, a fancy place to live, but it wasn’t like that for us. That home was where my dad made his investment. He put everything he had into that house so he could have a nice home and a safe neighborhood for his kids, but at the same time, he was doing it with smoke and mirrors. He was a successful guy, but when you have seven kids all going to private schools, you’re just trying to make ends meet. When we had a car, we drove it until the doors fell off. We were the last family to get a microwave, and we were the last family to get a VCR. We had an old TV, and when the dog walked in and shook his collar, the channels started changing. As far as we knew, though, we had everything we could ever want. My dad was really all about his kids, and providing for them and their education. Growing up, I thought, “God, we live in the greatest neighborhood, and this house is so beautiful.” When you get older and start to understand realities, you realize how important it is to have parents who really sacrificed everything for their children. It’s a lesson I’ll always remember. Living in LA does not offer quite the same Midwest upbringing—an upbringing you’d like to have for your children—but we try to keep things in perspective for them. It’s a very different place. Trying to teach your children the value of a dollar and what the proper values in life are, that gets tricky.

We had an old TV, and when the dog walked in and shook his collar, the channels started changing.

With seven kids, our house was busy all the time. It was exciting. All three brothers were in the same bedroom, where we had two sets of bunk beds. Then, Bill pulled a Greg Brady and moved to the garage. But John and I were roommates until he went to college. As the youngest kid, I observed a lot. You see older siblings’ successes and mistakes, what they did in sports, how hard they worked in school, and what colleges they ended up in, the fights they would have with your parents, and who would get in trouble. We had one station wagon in which all seven kids got their driver’s licenses. It was a big ordeal to see who was going to get to use the car on the weekends. Everyone fought for that.

O’Donnell rowed crew and played hockey at Loyola Academy, and began acting and modeling at fourteen years old.

O’Donnell rowed crew and played hockey at Loyola Academy, and began acting and modeling at fourteen years old.

There was a lot of interaction and a lot of tradition. On Saturday mornings, it was not uncommon to have four or five of the kids go with Mom and Dad to the grocery store and just load up. My dad loved doing that, walking down the aisles and sampling all the foods. It’s something that stuck with me. I still do the same thing. On Saturday afternoons, we always did big lunches at our home. It was casual, just making sandwiches. Sunday mornings, everyone would show up for breakfast. Even when the kids started to get apartments in the city, they’d always come back. And Sunday nights, we’d always have cheeseburgers. Every Sunday night, that was dinner, even in the dead of winter; we’d just cook them in the kitchen. It was all just little traditions like that, but that’s your family.

Everybody I knew came from a big family. We went to Catholic school at Saints Faith, Hope & Charity, so there were a lot of Irish Catholic families that had seven, nine, twelve kids. There were always kids running around. In our house, there were just people coming and going at all hours. Mom and Dad, having seen everything they could possibly have seen out of the older kids, weren’t really keeping that close of tabs on me, so I had a lot of freedom at a young age. I went everywhere on my bike. Coming home from school, if I didn’t have sports, I was riding my bicycle up to Charles Variety, the old general store in town, to buy a pack of baseball cards, or I’d go to Fred’s Bike Shop and check out all the new tennis shoes that were coming in. We rode all over the place, down to Tower Road Beach and all those local places, covering the whole North Shore. That was when we were real little. Then, you get a little bit older, and you go to McDonald’s. That was the spot on Friday nights. You rode your bikes to McDonald’s and got chased out of there by security guards at some point.

The forest preserves right around Crow Island had amazing bike paths, and that was always fun to ride our bikes in there. And in the winter, if we got big rains, the park district fields in Winnetka would flood over, and you could skate endless distances because all the soccer fields would be full of water that froze over. Our young lives were really about going to school, playing sports, and making up our own fun. It seems so different now. In LA, just trying to manage these schedules for all our kids is insane. The logistics of driving around Los Angeles are impossible, attempting to move kids to practices and schools that are all over the place. Where I grew up, everything was right there. I could ride my bike to school, to every sporting event. I don’t even think my parents knew I played four years of ice hockey. I just signed myself up.

In grade school, I just played whatever the sport was for that time of year, but I was so small, I never even got in the games. I was on the football team, I was on the basketball team, but I never got any playing time. But I picked up ice hockey, which I really loved. When I got to Loyola Academy, I was still really small, just a little guy. When I was sixteen and got my driver’s license, I was five-foot-one, ninety-five pounds. It’s funny because I look at my kids now—my son is fifteen and he is five-foot-seven already—and I’m thinking, “What happened to me?” Fortunately, my kids won’t have to put up with what I did. It’s always tricky going to high school and feeling like you just don’t fit in. Loyola Academy, at the time, was the largest all-boys Jesuit high school in the country, and I must have had four hundred fifty guys in my class. If you were going to play any sport, you better be pretty damn good. I ended up finding my way onto the crew team. I had never even heard of crew, but a friend of mine who was a couple years older was starting a program, and it was a rowing team. They needed a coxswain, whatever that was. My buddy says, “Come on. Get in the car. You’re going to be our coxswain.” I was just excited to be hanging out with some upperclassmen. We got down there, and they threw me in the boat. I spent four years doing it and loving it. I actually considered rowing in college, but by the time I was applying to college, I had grown, and I was a little too big. My coxswain days were over at that point.

We got to go to the city sometimes—either because our parents took us to a show or a White Sox or Bulls game, or something like that. That was always exciting. For the majority of my childhood, Dad ran WBBM, which was AM780, and worked downtown. Occasionally, you’d get to go to work with Dad, or he’d have tickets; he carried the Bears and the White Sox on his station, so Bears games were a big deal for us. But more of my experiences in the city came after I started modeling and doing commercials when I was fourteen.
It was kind of me trying to find a place to make my mark. I wasn’t going to do it in sports; I was just too little. There was a girl in my grade school who had been modeling, and I thought, “She’s getting her picture in the paper; she’s getting paid. I would love to do something like that.” I started cold calling Chicago talent agencies out of the Yellow Pages. That got me nowhere. But the old expression is, “chance favors the prepared mind.” It was because I was at least making an effort that it became kind of a joke in our family, and my sister happened to meet a woman who was a talent agent and said to her, “Would you do me a favor and just meet my little brother?” I met her, and she said, “Ya know what, I’ll send you in on stuff,” and I just started going in on calls and open auditions.

When I reminisce about those days, though, it’s always thoughts about Winnetka. Part of me thinks about the summers, the long days and hot nights sitting on the back porch with the White Sox game on, just kinda doing nothing. Or nights plopped in front of the TV watching “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Love Boat.” It wasn’t organized events for us all the time. We just had to figure out our own fun. Even in the dead of winter, that miserable time in the Chicago winter where there’s no snow on the ground, but you haven’t seen the sun in the sky for thirty days, you just find things to do. You run around with your friends, have sleepovers, and adventures. That was my childhood. That’s what we did.

I make it back and embrace those things a couple times each year. I have two sisters in Winnetka and a brother in Barrington. Charlie Beinlich’s is the first place I go every time. I will go straight from the airport to Beinlich’s and get my burger and cold beer. I just love that place. I’ve got my little spots. I still like going to Sarkis, even though [former owner George Sarkis] is not there, and the little Dairy Queen by Loyola and Irving’s [in Wilmette]. My wife’s like, “This is disgusting. This is all junk food.” And I tell her, “Yeah, you’re right, but it reminds me of my childhood.”
— As told to Publisher Joe Coughlin

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