July 1, 2009
The daughter of an ex-nun and an Iowa farm boy, a devout young Republican in a state dominated by Democrats, the vice president for institutional advancement at the iconic all-boys Boston College High School, and a woman with a knack for fundraising acquired in childhood through asking her frugal father for money, Michele M. O'Connor gives new definition to the word eclectic.
At 35, O'Connor, who has accomplished more in her field than most twice her age, offers a fresh, youthful perspective on life.
A graduate of the politically savvy Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., the Waltham native earned a masters degree in political science at Suffolk University, and was appointed deputy finance director for then State Treasurer Joe Malone's unsuccessful 1998 gubernatorial bid against acting Gov. Paul Cellucci in the Republican primary. She later became then Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey's campaign finance director, raising money for her candidate's campaign against Deval Patrick.
Bloodied in the process perhaps, but unbowed, as the poet William Ernest Henley reflects in Invictus, O'Connor then hit her stride in academia, marshalling her considerable fundraising, political, marketing, and media skills at Saint Anselm's as assistant director of the college's General Fund, at Stonehill College as director of its Annual Fund, and now at BC High where she has become as much a part of this respected institution as its historic red brick buildings. On the job here for nearly five years, there is plenty more on the horizon for O'Connor and her colleagues. The Jesuit school, founded in Boston's South End in 1863 and rooted in the 16th-century teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola, will be celebrating its 150th anniversary in just four years.
"I have plenty to do," she says from her office off Morrissey Boulevard. "There are good challenges every day. I don't see myself in politics in the future. I might dabble a bit, but my days of working in politics are probably over."
She might, however, anticipate a call or two from her party over the years. O'Connor still speaks regularly with Malone, who works in private practice, and with Healey, currently a Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School. Anticipating the question of what attracted her to the Republican Party, she says, "I'm a study in contradictions. I've always been a minority within a minority. My parents were conservative and influenced me in those ways. I've never had a problem standing up for what I believe in. I always will."
O'Connor is passionate about everything she does, a trait passed down from her parents. Her father, John, was raised on a family farm in Iowa, and as a young man found his way to the Boston area to work as a foreman at Raytheon, where his brother was employed. "People in Iowa often head south to Dallas, then take a left or a right turn," O'Connor says. "My dad headed east."
She describes her 82-year-old father, who boasts Gaelic roots dating back to the mid-1800s, as a "hard working man, who was frugal but who would give you the shirt off his back. He was very generous to the church and those in need. Dad was a great storyteller. He loved to talk politics and freely talked with strangers. He was gregarious." All of these traits, it seems, have passed to her.
O'Connor, who is single, lives in Waltham with her two Brittany spaniels, and has a younger brother, John, a police officer. She cares for her father every day, noting that her mother, Jeannine, who died at 63 of cancer, was "a joyful person who always had a smile on her face and made everyone feel important." The young Jeannine earned a nursing degree and entered the convent of the Sisters of St. Anne where, after some initial consideration of further medical studies, she was assigned to study English at Anna Marie College, founded by the Sisters of St. Anne outside Worcester. She taught as a nun for 15 years.
Jeannine determined in time that her vocation was outside, not inside, the convent, and she left the order to pursue her medical and teaching career and a life as a mother. She met John O'Connor after leaving the convent.
"I am a mix of the two," O'Connor says proudly. "I have my mother's personality and zest for life, and I have my father's work ethic and, sometimes, his temper, although not much of it."
Growing up in Waltham was an idyllic childhood, she recalls. "My parents had children later in life and devoted all their energies to us, although one of them was always working—when dad came home, mom usually went to work. They had a strong marriage, an enduring faith, and were active in St. Luke's Parish in Belmont where Mom directed the choir and I sang in it," O'Connor says. At Waltham High School—where, she says, she was an average student—O'Connor played soccer and was on the ski team, hence the attraction to college in New Hampshire, along with her instinct for politics.
Ask O'Connor, political to the core, what's wrong with Massachusetts's politics today, and then step back. "Where do you want me to start?" she asks. "We can get along with far less and we don't need big government." Of the Deval Patrick Administration, she says, "I would grade them a C minus. We don't need a Turnpike tax, and we don't need to raise our income tax. I want no tax."
So what must young Republicans do to become more viable in the Commonwealth?
"We need to become more articulate," she says. "It is disheartening to see so many good Republican candidates run for office with great energy and commitment, and then we have to live with the results, the re-election of a string of Democrats. People in this state are apathetic. They want the same incumbent and the same party year after year. As Republicans, we are generally shouldering a state burden that we didn't create. We need to remain vigilant. It is hard to keep climbing up a mountain, but I am hopeful that youth and leadership will prevail."
Youth and leadership drew O'Connor to BC High. Tempering her urge to wax political, she quickly segues to the founding principles of the school—faith and service through active participation in the community and church and a focus on youth and leadership regardless of one's political persuasions. Part of a network of 46 Jesuit secondary schools across the country that educate more than 40,000 young men and women every year, BC High, with more than 99 percent of its graduates attending college, strives in its own words to "integrate faith with knowledge and encourage students to improve the world around them, known in Jesuit circles as 'a faith that does justice.' "
O'Connor says she never had that direction in the public schools she attended. "I was wholly unprepared for college," she admits. "College was a shock." In contrast, she notes, BC High prepares its students in every way to continue their education and reinforces the traditional family ethic. "The public schools," she adds, "just don't have the Jesuit ideals. There are too many distractions. Between Hollywood, Facebook, and everything else, the family core is decaying. BC High, like few other schools in New England, can cut through all that; it can offer students hope for the future, a far better sense of right and wrong, and a clear understanding of social justice. The school's alumni are an extended family."
By the numbers, O'Connor says, BC High is impressive by any measure: 1,500 students; 15,000 alumni, many of them active; a 40-acre campus on Dorchester Bay; a 13-to-1 student to faculty ratio; 85 elective courses, 24 advanced placement courses, some 85 faculty holding masters degrees; collectively more than 35,000 hours of community service performed by students each year; and more than $3.7 million in financial aid distributed this year, with 40 percent of the students receiving some sort of financial help toward an annual tuition that will be $14,950 for the upcoming academic year.
In a troubled economy, raising money to support financial aid and improve school programs—the core of O'Connor's responsibilities that also include marketing and media outreach— is a challenge that would test the most seasoned fundraiser.
"Supporters give generously to the mission of BC High," she says. "The successes here have stood the test of time. It's a tribute to the school, the Jesuits, and the faculty."
Such youthful enthusiasm and perseverance would please St. Ignatius. For a woman who has been a minority within a minority, a free thinker in every way, the daughter of a former nun and a farmhand, Michele O'Connor has found a home at an all-boys school on the bay where she soars like an eagle.
Greg O'Brien is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communication company based in Brewster. The author/editor of several books, he has contributed to numerous regional and national publications.