RIP: Professor Thomas H. O’Connor

Professor Thomas O'Connor. Photo: Boston Globe
Professor Thomas O’Connor. Photo: Boston Globe

I was saddened to learn of the death of Professor Thomas O’Connor, one of the great historians of Boston’s modern history. I took a class with Prof. O’Connor at the Harvard Extension School in 2005 — his last, as it turned out. On the final day of classes Dean Shinagel came into the lecture hall with a small marching band to present an award.

Professor O’Connor absolutely deserved it. He was a marvelous instructor who had an innate grasp of the life of the city from Colonial times to the present, and really explained the commercial/political/social forces that shaped the modern city. He was a great storyteller, and brought Boston politics from the early 20th century to life with interesting anecdotes and asides.

Professor O’Connor was also a witness to many of the historical trends he discussed. He grew up in South Boston, and saw urban renewal, the bussing crisis, and the terms of many important mayors, including Mayor White and I believe Mayor Curley.

Worth sharing is this quote in the preface of The Hub:

“By eventually adapting to change and accommodating itself to modern ways — although at times grudgingly, often angrily, and almost always slowly — Boston has continued to be a live, functioning urban community that has not given into the nostalgic impulses that can so often turn a once-famous city into a lifeless historical shrine. …

The most serious challenge Boston faces in the future, however, is not longer confined to the construction of high-rise buildings, multilane highways, or extravagant commercial developments. The current challenge is the extent to which Boston will be able to retain its own distinctive identity as a city whose moral standards, civic virtues, and intellectual accomplishments once inspired a nation.”

(2001)

Professor O’Connor had a way of making his large classes feel personal. For instance, I remember him talking about the jazz clubs he used to frequent as a young man, or what Scollay Square used to be like before successive Boston mayors (Curley, White, Flynn) changed the face of the city with various urban renewal projects.

He will be missed.

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