Among the memorable of Branford’s sports performers of the past is J. Robert Donnelly who, like many of the town’s hallowed athletes, found that the fundamentals of coach John E. Knecht led not only to stardom but to full scholarship in college.
Bob was playing varsity football at Branford High at the age of twelve when he weighed just 89 pounds. He was a sharpshooting forward in basketball and rounding out his triple sports capacity by playing shortstop in baseball. Having graduated from Branford High with honors in 1934 at the age of sixteen, he took Coach Knecht’s advice and attended Worcester Academy where he set the school’s basketball scoring record which endured for a decade. He was to sharpen his passing skills in football at Worcester Academy where Bob’s other talents put him on editorial staffs of the school’s newspaper and yearbook and lead in the drama societies productions. To earn money for college he worked at the MIF Co. assembling Branford Burners while filling in a shooting gap on the MIF’s Industrial League basketball state finalists in 1936-37.
In 1937 Bob entered UConn along with Johnny Yusieviz and Vic Lukowsky also of Branford. Bob and Johnny were basketball co-captains in 1940-41, probably the only time such co-captaincy has gone to players from the same hometown.
While at UConn, Donnelly was a member of the Student Senate for three years and the Druids, a secret senior honorary society of six seniors who are “tapped” at the end of their junior year. This group worked through various campus channels and organizations for the general improvement of conditions on campus. Bob was elected to Gamma Chi Epsilon which was the forerunner of UConn’s Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa. Graduating with honors in June of 1941, he immediately joined the Army Air Corps along with Johnny Yusievicz and Jim Verinis of New Haven, the other forward on their championship basketball team of 1940-41.
Bob was assigned through most of the war to Headquarters, Air Service Command, located at Wright Field, Dayton, Ohio, dealing with highly confidential material. Donnelly was discharged in 1946 at the rank of major. While at Wright Field Bob became closely acquainted with Spike Briggs, who had the office next to his and whose family owned Briggs Stadium and the Detroit Tigers. In 1946 Bob went to work in Detroit at Briggs Manufacturing, but, fulfilling his life ambition, he left and entered the college of Law at The Ohio State University in the fall of 1947. He graduated in 1950 in the top five percent of his class.
Bob returned to Dayton, Ohio, where he established a highly successful law practice while at the same time with his brother-in-law, building the Dayton-Walther Corporation, a company founded by Bob’s father-in-law, George Walther. When the company, a leading supplier of wheels, hubs, suspensions and brakes for the truck and trailer industry, sold in 1986 it employed over 3,000 workers in fourteen plants in five states and two foreign countries.
For the last couple of years Bob has been fully retired spending winter months in Nokomis, Florida and summers in Michigan.