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Harvard receives $30 million gift from entrepreneur

One of Boston’s most successful businessmen, Joseph J. O’Donnell, has never forgotten how generously his alma mater, Harvard University, treated him as an ambitious young man from Everett.

“I was a scholarship kid all the way through Harvard and Harvard Business School,’’ O’Donnell, 67, said Tuesday in a phone interview. “I just want to make sure other bright young kids get that opportunity.’’

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O’Donnell and his wife, Kathy, returned the favor in huge measure Tuesday, donating $30 million to Harvard, with some of the funds expected to be used for student financial aid. He said he hopes the money will allow Harvard to continue offering education and opportunity to working-class students.

“We need to contribute to that pipeline,’’ said O’Donnell, the founder of Boston Concessions Group Inc., which is now part of food service giant Centerplate. “The idea of Harvard being an elite institution’’ beyond the reach of students of limited means is not accurate, he added.

Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust expressed her gratitude to the O’Donnells in a statement Tuesday.

“A gift of this magnitude, at this important time in our history, is indicative of the leadership that has defined Joe’s relationship with Harvard since he arrived in Cambridge nearly half a century ago,’’ Faust said.

The gift comes as Harvard is celebrating its 375th year. The Cambridge institution has logged other significant contributions in recent years, including $100 million from David M. Rockefeller and $125 million from Hansjörg Wyss in 2008.

The son of an Everett police officer, O’Donnell has been affiliated with Harvard for nearly five decades. He earned a bachelor’s degree in government in 1967 and his MBA from Harvard Business School in 1971. He has maintained strong ties with the school since then, serving on the Harvard Corporation, one of the university’s two governing boards. He is also a director of Associates of Harvard Business School and was a member of the university’s Board of Overseers.

O’Donnell noted that two-thirds of Harvard students receive financial aid, and the university gave away $170 million in grants and scholarships last year, helping the strongest applicants afford tuition regardless of their financial situation.

“Over the years, we’ve witnessed remarkable accomplishments by Harvard alumni, in many different fields,’’ Kathy O’Donnell added in a statement. “And we’re delighted that we can help Harvard continue to develop young leaders who will contribute to society as a whole.’’

In 1986, the O’Donnells founded the Joey Fund in memory of their son, who died of cystic fibrosis that year at the age of 12. O’Donnell is a trustee of the National Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, which has twice presented him with its highest honor, the Breath of Life Award, according to the statement released by Harvard.

John McArthur, the former dean of the Harvard Business School and a longtime friend of O’Donnell, said Tuesday that the gift to the university reflects O’Donnell’s generosity of spirit.

“It’s not just the university,’’ McArthur said in a phone interview. “You look at the whole trail of his life, and he’s been a leader in everything and he’s always given back.’’

Globe correspondent Colin A. Young contributed to this report. Travis Andersen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.
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