Thomas H. O’Connor, ‘dean’ of Boston’s historians, dies at 89

Historian Thomas O'Connor in 1997 in his BC office with a Civil War recruitment poster displayed in Boston during that war.
Tom Herde/Globe Staff
Historian Thomas O'Connor in 1997 in his BC office with a Civil War recruitment poster displayed in Boston during that war.

Thomas H. O’Connor, the unofficial dean of Boston history and a fixture for more than six decades on the Boston College faculty, died Sunday in his Milton home. He was 89.

The cause of death was a heart attack, the college’s news and public affairs office said.

“Most traditional treatments of Boston tend to be extraordinarily incomplete and at times strangely unreal,’’ Dr. O’Connor wrote in his first book about the city, “Bibles, Brahmins, and Bosses: A Short History of Boston,’’ (1976). “Many works place a great emphasis on Boston as old, nostalgic, and quaint. . . a sort of storybook community set in time, unchanging in its character and unyielding in its traditions.’’

Dr. O’Connor spent several decades remedying that situation. No one could ever describe as “strangely unreal’’ and a “storybook community’’ the vivid, dynamic city found in such books by Dr. O’Connor as “South Boston, My Home Town: The History of an Ethnic Neighborhood’’ (1988), “Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal’’ (1993), “The Boston Irish: A Political History’’ (1995), “Civil War Boston: Homefront and Battlefront’’ (1997), “Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People’’ (1998), and “The Hub: Boston Past and Present’’ (2001).

“I’ve come in contact with thousands of historical researchers here,’’ said Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society, in a telephone interview. “But very few have been as warm and affable as Tom.

“I’ve also seen now several generations of Tom O’Connor students come to the library. His legacy is in them and in his books. Through his teaching and writing he opened up history to this much wider audience than you’d find in academic life.’’

One of Dr. O’Connor’s students was James O’Toole, Clough Millennium professor of history at Boston College. He studied with Dr. O’Connor as an undergraduate and a graduate student.

“In the classroom he was one of the most dynamic lecturers I ever encountered,’’ O’Toole said in a telephone interview Monday. “He knew his stuff cold, of course, but the way he presented it was just infectious. I know plenty of people who became interested in history after taking his classes.’’

A natural storyteller, Dr. O’Connor wrote as he spoke. His warm, affable personal manner easily translated to the page.

Dr. O’Connor’s first book, “Lords of the Loom: Cotton Whigs and the Coming of the Civil War’’ (1968), examined the conflict between political principle and economic self-interest among leading textile manufacturers in antebellum New England. While researching it, he came across something that would help lead him to focus on Boston’s history, the surprisingly cordial correspondence between Yankee textile magnate Amos Lawrence and Bishop John Bernard Fitzpatrick of Boston.

“Bibles, Brahmins, and Bosses’’ had grown out of a Boston Public Library lecture series given at the suggestion of the library. “Fitzpatrick’s Boston: 1846-1866’’ (1984) was Dr. O’Connor’s idea. “It was a breakaway for me into a new area of studies,’’ he said in a 2002 Globe interview. “It got me involved in the documents of Catholicism in early Boston. It introduced me to some of the background history of the Irish. It made me realize, ‘There’s stuff in this.’ ’’

The son of John F. O’Connor, a mail carrier, and Marie (Meany) O’Connor, a housewife and office worker, Thomas Henry O’Connor was born Dec. 9, 1922, in South Boston.

“I loved to read and I was always fascinated by history,’’ Dr. O’Connor said in the Globe interview.

As a boy, he was captivated by Robert Louis Stevenson, Howard Pyle, and N.C. Wyeth. Dr. O’Connor recalled in the preface to his book “Boston A to Z’’ (2000) that his Aunt Nellie would take him all over the city when he was a boy and present him with a book every year on his birthday and another at Christmas. A book she gave him about the French and Indian Wars first excited his interest in American history.

Dr. O’Connor attended Gate of Heaven elementary school in South Boston. As an eighth-grader, he took second place in a citywide Evacuation Day essay competition. James Michael Curley, who was then the governor, presented him with the silver medal.

As a student at Boston Latin School, Dr. O’Connor worked afternoons at the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, further advancing his love of books. He received Latin’s distinguished alumnus award in 1999.

Dr. O’Connor graduated from Latin in 1942 and entered Boston College. He joined the Army at the end of his freshman year. Rising to the rank of staff sergeant, he served in the China-Burma-India theater of operations.

He returned to BC in the fall of 1946. In addition to his studies, he served as staff cartoonist for The Stylus, the BC literary magazine, and The Heights, the student newspaper. Dr. O’Connor later put his skills as a draftsman to use in “The Boston College Cookbook’’ (1983), for which he provided illustrations.

Three days after receiving his bachelor’s degree, in 1949, Dr. O’Connor married. He later described marrying Mary MacDonald as the “greatest thing I ever did.’’ She, too, worked at the BPL, though it was at a Polonaise Society dance that they first met.

Dr. O’Connor received a master’s degree from BC in 1950 and entered the doctoral program in American history at Boston University.

He was asked by the head of the BC history department if he would be willing to fill in for a year for an instructor who had suddenly left. At the time, Dr. O’Connor had a full-time job in the statistics and government documents department at the Boston Public Library, a civil service post with lifetime job security. The BC offer paid $350 a year less than the BPL job.

“I was dying to get a teaching job,’’ Dr. O’Connor recalled in 2002. “So I submitted my resignation [to the BPL] and burned my bridges behind me.’’

Continuing his studies at BU while teaching at BC, Dr. O’Connor received his doctorate in 1957. He remained at BC the rest of his life. He served as department chairman during much of the 1960s, took emeritus status in 1993, and was named university historian in 1999.

Dr. O’Connor also taught for many years at the Harvard Extension School. He served on the National Bicentennial Commission and the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution. In 1999, he was awarded the Eire Society of Boston Gold Medal.

“I’ve always considered myself a teacher who wrote, not a writer who taught,’’ Dr. O’Connor said in the 2002 Globe interview. “Not that one was better than the other. Now having said that, I would have to say I always felt all the writing I did flowed naturally from my teaching.’’

Other books by Dr. O’Connor include “The Disunited States: The Era of Civil War and Reconstruction’’ (1974); “Religion and American Society’’ (1975); “This Momentous Affair: Massachusetts and the Ratification of the Constitution’’ (1987); “Eminent Bostonians’’ (2002); “The Athens of America: Boston, 1825-1845’’ (2006); and “Two Centuries of Faith: The Influence of Catholicism on Boston, 1808-2008’’ (2009).

In addition to his wife, Dr. O’Connor leaves a daughter, Jeanne O’Connor-Green, of Milton; a son, Michael, of Newburyport; and two grandsons.

A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Thomas More Church in Braintree. Burial will be in St. Francis Xavier Cemetery in Weymouth.

Mark Feeney can be reached at