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Bill O’Connell, 81; Boston TV sportscaster for decades

Bill O’Connell was known for his quips and demeanor.

Bill O’Connell was known for his quips and demeanor.

The move in 1980 from weekend sportscaster at Channel 5 to be the top Monday-through-Friday sports personality job at Channel 7 was a step up, but Bill O’Connell took it in stride.

“Oh, people seem to recognize me more often,” he told the Globe in December that year. “You are noticed more around your own station. When you work weekends, the people who work a regular schedule during the week never see you, and I suppose could care less.”

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Attracting considerable notice from viewers and listeners through a lengthy career in television and radio, he was a sportscaster at television Channels 5, 7, and 56 before ending his broadcast career by returning to his roots in radio, where he shared his love of jazz during late-night hours on WPLM-FM in Plymouth.

Mr. O’Connell, an avid photographer who was fond of jumping into a car and heading off for a drive with no particular destination in mind, died of cancer Feb. 25 in Avow Hospice in Naples, Fla. He was 81 and previously lived in retirement in North Fort Myers, Fla.

Jack Craig, the late Globe reporter who became the first full-time newspaper critic of sports on television, wrote in 1990 that “the best weekend sports anchor ever around here may have been Bill O’Connell on Channel 5 in the ’70s, especially when he was exchanging quips with news anchor John Henning.”

In 1980, Craig wrote that Mr. O’Connell’s “weekend reports were a joy, chock full of scores enhanced by his funny little remarks and exchanges” with Henning, who during a four-decade broadcasting career was the news anchor on Channels 4, 5, and 7.

Mike Fernandez, news operations manager at WCVB-TV (Channel 5) was a college student co-op in 1970 when he met Mr. O’Connell, whom he watched on and off the air through years as a colleague and viewer.

“Bill was a pretty cool customer,” Fernandez said.

On camera, Fernandez said, Mr. O’Connell had “an air of confidence. He had a sense of humor and he had a specific point of view. He didn’t mind saying what was on his mind. You got some opinion in there, too. I always found him interesting to watch because he wasn’t bland, and he gave the impression that he was the kind of guy you wanted to hang out with, and it turned out he was like that off the air, too.”

Craig also credited Mr. O’Connell with creating the first regular television segment in the Boston market that was devoted to high school sports.

Producing the segments, which began running on Channel 5 in 1978, presented a challenge in Boston, where professional and college teams take up so much time and so many resources in sports departments.

“It wasn’t so easy because you had to fight then for a camera crew,” Mr. O’Connell recalled during an interview with Craig in 1993.

An only child, William S. O’Connell was born in Plymouth, and moved for a few years with his mother to Brighton after his father died during World War II while serving in the Army Air Corps.

He returned to Plymouth and began his broadcasting career at WBET-AM in Brockton.

On Feb. 24, 1952, Mr. O’Connell married Carolyn Herget of Kingston, and they adopted two children. As work brought Mr. O’Connell to different stations, the family lived in Framingham, Cohasset, Scituate, Norwell, and Duxbury.

Like many who started their careers in radio in the 1950s, Mr. O’Connell found that the future was sitting in front of a camera.

“Television was coming into its golden age in the early ’60s and some radio personalities were moving into television,” said his son, Matt of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Don Gillis was my father’s mentor. They both moved from radio into television.”

In 1966, Mr. O’Connell began working at WHDH-TV, a precursor to WCVB-TV that also used Channel 5. He became the station’s weekend sports anchor and hosted “Candlepin Super Bowl” when the bowling program debuted.

During his years at Channel 5, Mr. O’Connell began his long friendship with Henning. Until Mr. Henning’s death in 2010, the two former colleagues socialized regularly with their spouses in Boston and Florida.

“My father considered John Henning his best friend and was really crushed when he died,” Matt said.

After nearly 15 years, which included a mass move of the WHDH-TV on-air talent to WCVB-TV in 1972, Mr. O’Connell switched at the end of 1980 to WNAC-TV (Channel 7), where he spent nearly three years as the nightly sports anchor.

From there he moved to WLVI-TV (Channel 56) and became the station’s sports anchor when it began a 10 p.m. news program in early 1984. He also began recording sports commentaries that aired on WFCC-FM when the radio station debuted in Chatham in 1987.

In June that year, he was hospitalized in critical condition after suffering a heart attack while recording commentaries at the radio station. Mr. O’Connell resigned from Channel 56 in November 1987 and finished his career broadcasting jazz from midnight to 6 a.m. at Plymouth radio station WPLM, where he also did sports reports.

“He loved music and we had a whole room just filled with records,” said his daughter, Deidre Diodati of Naples, Fla.

Since 1996, Mr. O’Connell and his wife lived in North Fort Myers. Because of illnesses, they moved recently to Naples to be closer to their daughter.

For years a photographer who particularly liked birds as subjects, Mr. O’Connell “would go to the Everglades and sit for hours with a mug of coffee and a camera,” his son said.

“He and I used to go out in search of birds with our long lens,” Mr. O’Connell’s daughter said.

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. O’Connell leaves six grandchildren.

He requested that no service be held, and his ashes will be scattered on a Martha’s Vineyard beach.

When Mr. O’Connell’s children were young, he and his wife liked to take car rides that were more about the joy of exploring New England than traveling to a specific place.

“They’d never tell us where they were going, it was, ‘Get in the car,’ ” their daughter recalled. “We’d head north more often than we’d go south. We’d go up into New Hampshire, or to Canada, and half the time I don’t even think he knew where we were going. He’d drive until he saw an interesting sign. He liked to show us the different side of life.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard @globe.com.
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