High school friends recall O’Malley as curious, funny and willing to work hard, pointing, as an example, to his drive to play high school football. Having grown between his sophomore and junior years, O’Malley decided to try out for football, but since he hadn’t played before, he started out on the junior varsity team. Gonzaga classmate Michael Drayne says O’Malley’s approach to football—“taking it on as a project”—illustrates his work ethic and the intensity with which he handles challenges. “
Even though he was new at football, he was very much a leader on the team,” says Danny Costello, Gonzaga’s junior varsity football coach at the time. O’Malley was a member of the varsity team in his senior year, and though he wasn’t a starter, he played regularly as a receiver and cornerback. “He would lead the team in cheers and he was very funny,” Costello says. Earlier this year, when Gonzaga’s basketball Team beat Theodore Roosevelt High School in the City Title Game, O’Malley was leading the student section in cheers at Verizon Center.
Costello, now Gonzaga’s vice president of advancement, says the area around the school, which is located off of North Capitol Street just blocks from Union Station, was economically depressed when O’Malley was there. Costello recalls the contrast of seeing the Capitol in one direction and housing projects and homeless people in the other. The students were expected to work on projects aimed at helping the disadvantaged.
At Gonzaga, O’Malley cemented the values taught at home. “All the children were shaped by faith,” says Barbara O’Malley, who had three nuns and two priests in her family. “There is a choice of good and evil in the world, and you darn well better do good.” Besides getting a Catholic school education, going to church each Sunday was a given. To this day, the governor attends church regularly.
The motto of the Jesuit high school was and is “Men for Others.” The governor explains it: “Your life on this planet and your time here is very short and you have an obligation and a duty to God that created you to make this world a better place, to be a man for others.”
O’Malley grew up in a household that was as proud of its Irish heritage as it was of being Catholic. His sister, Eileen Schempp, says their mother, who has a German background, “embraced being Irish” even more than her Irish husband did. When O’Malley was in elementary school, his mother brought home records by Irish artists such as the Clancy Brothers. As a teenager, he became fascinated with his Irish roots and started borrowing books from the library on Irish history. He eventually taught himself to play the tin whistle, a musical instrument with long ties to Irish music.
O’Malley also started listening to and playing Irish music with Costello, the football coach, who was also Gonzaga’s media coordinator. The music was “an outward expression of our interest in our Irish heritage,” Costello says. They were particularly fascinated by Celtic folk songs and rebel music that evoked centuries of oppression in Ireland.
During his junior year, O’Malley went on a school trip to Ireland. His roommate on the trip, Dennis Kilcullen of Kensington, recalls how his classmate had the confidence at age 16 to go into local Irish pubs and play his tin whistle and guitar. O’Malley has been to Ireland several times since, and was there this June to receive an honorary degree in public service from the National University of Ireland, Galway. He took his mother and one of his four children, William, and they visited distant relatives while vacationing for a week.
At Gonzaga, O’Malley, Costello and some of Costello’s friends, who were also in their mid-20s, started a band called “Shannon Tide.” Barbara O’Malley, who was not aware of the extent of her son’s musical talent, says, “The first time I walked in when the band was playing and he [Martin] was singing, I almost fell over. But I knew he could do it.” The band started playing regular gigs at Irish pubs throughout the area, and Barbara recalls Shannon Tide playing at Flanagan’s, on the corner of Old Georgetown Road and Woodmont Avenue in Bethesda.
The band became so popular that it even went on the road for a few gigs in Irish bars in Baltimore, Delaware and Chicago. Costello recalls that if they had to stay over on a Saturday, O’Malley made sure he attended Mass somewhere.
O’Malley also acted in some plays at Gonzaga and was a newscaster on the school’s closed-circuit channel. He served as a “home room” president on the student council, but was defeated in his run for council president in his senior year.
Having tasted his first political victory in the seventh grade, O’Malley was not deterred by the defeat in high school. In fact, he has always thrived on being the underdog or working for one. While waiting to appear on WTOP radio’s Ask The Governor program earlier this year, O’Malley became animated as he spoke about taking his youngest son, Jack, to see the movie Underdog, based on a TV cartoon character from the 1960s, a program the governor used to watch. Without hesitation, O’Malley listed some of the characters in the movie as if they were figures in literary history.
O’Malley’s own career choice was partially inspired by Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s underdog candidacy in the 1984 presidential race. O’Malley, while a freshman at Catholic University in Washington, worked as a volunteer and then as a paid staff member at Hart’s campaign headquarters on Capitol Hill.
In late 1983, in advance of the Iowa caucuses, O’Malley was dispatched to the state. There, he worked the phones, organized volunteers and played the guitar and sang at fundraisers. “It was remarkable how much people liked him wherever he was working,” Hart recalls. When O’Malley turned 21, Hart bought his staffer his first “legal beer.”
O’Malley went on to work in several states—while still enrolled in college— and then as a floor leader at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco in the summer of 1984.
“It was a time in [O’Malley’s] life that everything came together: a love of politics, a sense of mission, the performance aspect…having to persuade people,” says Drayne of Silver Spring, the Gonzaga friend who first got O’Malley interested in working on the Hart campaign.
Drayne says O’Malley was inspired by Hart’s role as the underdog. “He would not have had one-tenth of the fun” if he had been in the Walter Mondale campaign, Drayne says. “It was like fighting for Northern Ireland under the thumb of Great Britain…. Being the underdog, fighting for some noble cause against great odds [is the] position that he likes to be in.”