By Tom Missel
“College? ... Me?”
If the thought ever crossed Bill O’Connell’s mind, the notion never intersected with reality.
The seventh of eight children growing up on an oil lease south of Bradford, O’Connell didn’t have much time for high school, never mind college.
“If it hadn’t been for football and basketball and my classmates convincing me to stay, I’d have quit,” said O’Connell, a 1955 graduate of St. Bernard’s and a longtime resident of Delevan. “Knowing I couldn’t go to college – no one in my family had, we just couldn’t afford it – I just didn’t see the point (of school).”
But the only girl in a gaggle of boys saw clearly what college could mean for her brother.
“I moved in with my sister (Pat Carlson) and her husband in Bradford, and on the same day I was offered a job in a bank and a job in one of the factories. I thought I’d take the bank job so I could wear a nice shirt,” O’Connell recalled. “But my sister said, ‘No, if you take that job you’re going to be there the rest of your life. You’re going to take the factory job and you’re still going to go to college.’
“By January, she had me all set to go to Clarion. ... I owe her everything.”
More than 50 years later, O’Connell has “never forgotten” the gift his sister gave him. Clarion laid the foundation for a life in education, a life spent teaching those who cross his path that perseverance and passion matter as much as anything.
“I continually use words of wisdom that Bill imparted to me,” said Mary Colf, executive director of Seneca Highlands IU-9 in Smethport and a student of O’Connell’s when he taught at St. Bonaventure in the 1990s. “The biggest leadership lesson I learned from him is a very simple one, almost cliche: take full advantage of every single opportunity you have with staff, with people who will recognize that you took that time with them and that it mattered.”
That lesson served O’Connell well in an education career that spanned more than 40 years.
O’Connell started teaching in Limestone in 1960, and within four years was the superintendent, at age 26. He left for the newly merged Pioneer Central district in 1966 and retired from there in 1992, the last 17 years spent as principal of the middle school he, more than anyone, established.
A solitary voice preaching to a skeptical choir, O’Connell had seen enough student behavior to convince him that the traditional junior/senior high school model just didn’t work anymore.
“Seeing seventh-graders with seniors every day just convinced me that we needed to do something different,” he said. “They just didn’t belong in that environment.”
There was only one catch: O’Connell had to sell the middle school idea on his own.
“Our superintendent said, ‘Bill, you go ahead and try to sell that middle school concept, but I have to tell you that you’re on your own.’ That’s all I needed to know. I put an ad in the paper and said I would meet with any group that wanted to discuss the idea.”
The ad was soon answered. In a living room on Curriers Road, he stared down 11 adults from the Farm Bureau who “peppered me with questions,” O’Connell said.
“And when we were all done they said, ‘Young man, you’ve got some good points there. You just keep after it,’” he said.
Eventually, Pioneer voters overwhelmingly approved the switch to a middle school concept. The new middle school building, which still houses students in fifth through eighth grade, opened in 1975.
The siren song of retirement called 17 years later, but O’Connell really just changed the tune.
Along with his wife, Mary Lee, he donated plenty of time and energy to SASi, the Suburban Adult Services branch in Sardinia that aids the physically and mentally disabled. But education still ran through his veins.
“I let Bill stay retired for about two-and-a-half seconds and I said, ‘Hey, Bill, what do you think about teaching down here?’” Peggy Burke, now dean of the schools of Education and Graduate Studies at St. Bonaventure, said with a laugh.
Less than a year after retiring from Pioneer, O’Connell – who earned his master’s in educational leadership from SBU in 1970 – began teaching graduate courses at Bonaventure. He eventually took over SBU’s educational leadership program.
“Bill was super for us to pick up because he was such an avid booster for Bonaventure,” Burke said. “And Bill is such an authentic person, a real people person. I think coming from a family that really struggled he has the ability to connect with so many different people. He has so much compassion for students, and he never, ever gave up on a kid.”
O’Connell’s power of persuasion and affable nature served him well long after retirement, even after leaving his teaching duties at St. Bonaventure in 2002. “Retirement” had become overwhelming.
On top of his teaching responsibilities and intern oversight at SBU, O’Connell was working as a consultant for the state Education Department’s Schools of Excellence program and for Erie I BOCES, helping schools launch shared decision-making programs.
“One day I taught my course at Bona’s from 4:30 to 7 p.m., jumped in my car and drove to Albany, got a hotel, and had to be in a principal’s office in Schenectady at 8 a.m. the next morning,” O’Connell said. “The jobs just started to overlap so much.”
O’Connell became so busy he started flying his small plane to some appointments to save time.
“I stopped to refuel my plane one day (in 2002) at the Olean Airport and David Campbell said to me, ‘Bill, I need to find someone to work part time here, someone who knows something about airplanes.’ That was a Thursday,” O’Connell said. “I remember that vividly because by Monday I was working the airport by myself.”
A new chapter in his life had taken off. O’Connell quickly became a vocal advocate for the airport and its significance to the region, bending the ear of all the pilots and passengers who flew into the hilltop airport in Ischua — including, on more than one occasion, the longtime pilot for U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
After his traditional graduation speaking tour of Southern Tier college campuses on May 14, 2006, Sen. Schumer approached O’Connell after returning to the airport to fly home.
“The senator said to me, ‘Bill, how are things going up here?’” O’Connell recalled. “‘Well, Senator, now that you’ve asked … We’re sort of like a drunk — we seem to take one step forward and two steps back.’”
Clearly prodded by conversations his pilot had with O’Connell, Sen. Schumer listened intently to O’Connell talk about the importance of the airport to the region and how badly the terminal building was in need of major repair. A federal grant in 2002 helped finance taxiway and runway upgrades, but the terminal was dilapidated.
“It was almost embarrassing when people would come into the terminal,” he said. “You hoped their ride would be there to pick them up as soon as they landed so they wouldn’t have to come inside.”
Sen. Schumer told him, “Bill, let’s see what we can do about this,” and then brought his aide over to exchange contact information with O’Connell, who was asked to send an e-mail to Schumer’s office detailing everything that the airport needed.
“I figured this was all just bull, but I sat down two days later to write the e-mail,” O’Connell said. “Two hours later I got an e-mail back from his office, and the next day someone from his Buffalo office called and said, ‘I don’t know why, but for some reason the senator is very interested in this.’ I was convinced then that we were onto something.”
Within months the airport received a combined state and federal grant for roughly $700,000 for hangar and terminal remodeling. In July 2007, the airport received $942,000 more from the federal government to reconstruct the ramp area and provide security cameras and fencing.
“Bill is just a phenomenal guy, as caring and dedicated as they come,” said Tom Windus, director of Olean’s Department of Public Works, the city office that oversees the airport’s operation. “He loves the airport and wants to see it succeed. He knows that it brings tourism and business to the area. He was instrumental in starting (in 2005) the Cattaraugus/Olean Airport Support Group that’s given such a boost to the airport.”
Much like he convinced Pioneer district residents more than 30 years ago that middle schools made sense, O’Connell sold naysayers on the importance of the airport. Irked by officials who didn’t believe the airport was worth maintaining, O’Connell began logging snapshots in a scrapbook of all the planes and helicopters that landed there. He used them as ammunition to curry support with city and county officials.
“If you can help people to understand why something needs to be done, then they’re much more willing to accept it,” he said. “Contact with the outside world is so important. Even with all of our modern technology, with people being able to see each other and meet over the phone and computer, there’s still a need for people to get together in business. So many business people come in and out of here that we don’t even know of because they fly in here at night and fly out the next day.
“The airport is such a vital asset to our area.”
Same goes for Bill O’Connell. Ask anyone who knows him.
“He’s really shaped me, in my job and as a person — and I didn’t run across Bill until I was in my 40s,” said Colf, the IU-9 director. “I’ve learned to find the joy in every single opportunity I can, to walk away from an encounter with as much as I can take from it. I owe that perspective to Bill.”