Robert C. Odle Jr., prominent lawyer and public official, dies at 75

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Rob Odle in 1983. (Photo Credit: Michael Evans)
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By Missy Schrott | [email protected]

Robert C. Odle Jr., a lawyer, White House staffer and assistant secretary of the Department of Energy, died from cancer on Oct. 2. He was 75.

Odle began his career working at President Richard Nixon’s campaign offices in New York while still in law school. Upon graduating, Odle joined the staff of the White House director of communications. He served as director of administration for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President from 1971 to 1973.

Robert Odle being sworn in at the Watergate hearings. As director of administration for Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, Odle was the first witness to testify. (Photo Credit: Allen Green)

Because of his role in the re-election campaign, Odle was the first witness to testify at the Watergate hearings, where he was asked to describe the organization of the committee.

Odle served as deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development starting in 1973, then went on to work at International Paper from 1976 to 1981.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan nominated, and the Senate confirmed, Odle as assistant secretary of the Department of Energy. In the role, Odle was responsible for the DOE’s legislative, public, intergovernmental and consumer affairs programs; DOE’s Office of Competition; and the environmental, health and safety compliance of DOE facilities.

In 1985, Odle joined the Weil, Gotshal & Manges law firm and became a partner. After 30 years with the firm, he retired in 2015.

Odle married his wife of 50 years, Lydia Ann (Karpinol) Odle, in 1969. The couple adopted their son, John Paul, from Russia in 1994.

The Odles have lived in Old Town since 1972 in houses on St. Asaph, Lee and Union streets.

Rob with his son John Paul, who was 5 years old at the time. (Courtesy Photo)

“He liked Alexandria because he liked the feel of a small town, where people knew each other and cared about each other,” Lydia Odle said. “And when you saw someone or went into the bank, they called you Mr. Odle or Mrs. Odle, or you went over to City Hall, and they recognized your name. He liked that, even if he had to pay parking tickets.”

Those who knew Odle described him as selfless, positive and productive.

“When you’re dealing with a person who is pure integrity, a person who wants to do good things for his country without the thought of promoting himself, you’re dealing with the best America has to offer in the way of public servants,” Jeff Donfeld, Odle’s lifelong friend and colleague, said. “His service in government was exemplary, and he just loved the country and loved service. He was a very, very giving, generous person to his friends and acquaintances.”

Donfeld met Odle while working at the White House during Nixon’s tenure. Friends ever since, Donfeld said he witnessed Odle’s generosity throughout his life.

“He was a unique individual,” Donfeld said. “The world would be a lot better if we could replicate Rob Odles.”

Rob Odle with then President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush. (Courtesy Photo)

Lydia Odle said one of the things her husband was most proud of was the work he did as a lawyer for the Baltic-American Enterprise Fund, which was established in 1994 to help promote economic growth in newly liberated Eastern European countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

“There are people who get headlines and people who get things done,” Kim Davis, a friend and colleague who worked with Odle on the fund, said. “Rob was someone who studiously avoided headlines, but was very focused on getting stuff done, so he was a very quiet, very determined, very low-key but very effective advocate for what he believed in. And he was a passionate believer in democracy, human rights. …. The work he did was not only work that was consistent with his professional background but also consistent with his belief system.”

Davis described Odle as a professional through and through.

“Rob was the kind of person who it would be really hard for him to show up in business casual,” Davis laughed. “He understood grey suits, white shirts and nice ties.

“Sometimes, I think that there are people who do incredibly good work for a long period of time and just almost by definition, just never raise their hand and get credit,” Davis said. “If there’s anything I would like to see, … [it’s] that he be properly recognized for the incredible efforts he made over a long period of time on issues that I think are important to the United States. He really was a soldier for freedom and democracy.”

Rob Odle with his wife of 50 years, Lydia Odle, and Cardinal James Hickey. (Courtesy Photo)

Odle converted to Catholicism at age 18. For 42 years, he was an active parishioner at the Basilica of Saint Mary in Old Town. In 2014, he donated a statue of Saint Thomas More to the church. In recent years, he volunteered to bring Holy Communion to sick and homebound parishioners.

“Rob was very generous to our parish and was passionate about the beautification and restoration of our historic church,” the Rev. Edward Hathaway said in an email. “He was instrumental in our efforts to renovate our sanctuary, restore our Stations of the Cross paintings and the installation of our Saint Thomas More statue.”

Throughout his life, Odle was known to be an avid reader and writer. He especially enjoyed reading about Catholic doctrine, history and politics.

“He was a letter writer. You know, most people don’t write letters any more, but Rob wrote letters to people,” Lydia Odle said. “He corresponded with people all over the world. He especially like to write letters to young people giving them advice and giving them support.”

In addition to reading, writing and public service, Odle loved travel, cars and, above all, his family, Lydia Odle said.

Rob and Lydia Odle. (Courtesy Photo)

“He loved his family,” Lydia Odle said. “That was his biggest thing. He just loved his family.”

Robert C. Odle Jr. was born in Port Huron, Michigan on Feb. 15, 1944 to Robert Charles and Elizabeth Dagmar (Lassen) Odle.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in 1966 and his juris doctorate degree from the Detroit College of Law, now the Michigan State University College of Law, in 1969. Michigan State gave Odle an honorary doctor of law degree in 1992, the same year he delivered a commencement address at the school.

Odle is survived by his wife Lydia and his son John Paul.

There will be a funeral service at the Basilica of Saint Mary, 310 S. Royal St., on Oct. 19 at noon. Odle will be buried with his family in Port Huron, Michigan at a later date.

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