As an assistant football coach at Hull High in 1961, earning a salary of $4,400, Jim O’Connor had reached a career crossroads.
Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury, founded in 1957, was looking for its first head football coach. Mr. O’Connor was offered $4,000 and a used clothes dryer that the Christian Brothers at CM would throw in as an incentive.
Mr. O’Connor, with two infant children at home, took the dryer and the four grand. Eleven years later, his undefeated team took on powerhouse Swampscott in the inaugural Eastern Massachusetts Division 2 Super Bowl at Boston University’s Nickerson Field.
Despite a 28-21 defeat, Mr. O’Connor said at a 10th anniversary get together of both teams that ``for all of us, there was a sense of being part of history and of accomplishment.’’
Mr. O’Connor, whose Knights won Division 2 Super Bowl titles in 1973 and 1978, when he was named Globe Coach of the Year, died Saturday morning at his home in Norwood.
An inductee to the CM, Curry College, and Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association halls of fame, he was 87.
At Catholic Memorial, he taught psychology and history and was a guidance counselor. He stressed “poise and class,” to his athletes and students.
”I have never met a human being like my dad,” said his son, Jack, of North Easton, a quarterback on O’Connor’s 1978 and ‘79 teams at CM. “He was a devoted father, husband, and coach and an exemplary soul who had a meaningful relationship with his God.”
The football field adjacent to Catholic Memorial was named in his honor in 2011 during the Thanksgiving Day game against BC High. On that occasion, he remarked that he “never had a day of regret” about his time at the school.
Mr. O’Connor was football coach at CM for 19 years and its athletic director from 1972-92. He was an innovative athletic director the following 10 years at Framingham High.
Framingham Athletics is sad to hear of the passing of former AD Jim O’Connor. Jim had a positive impact on FHS student athletes and his contributions to the school and the community remain today. Jim was a true gentleman and a magnanimous sportsmen. @FramSource @framinghamps— Framingham Athletics (@FHSFlyersSports) February 25, 2023
A former president of the state football coaches association and a director on the coaches’ committee that helped organize the first Super Bowl, Mr. O’Connor was a founder and director of the Shriners Football Classic.
He was also football and ice hockey tournament director for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
“During my time as athletic director at Xaverian High, Jim was a humble and generous mentor and a friend,” said Charlie Stevenson, also the school’s former head football coach. “If I had a question about being an AD he was always willing to share his wealth of knowledge and I was fortunate to tap into that.
“Massachusetts has lost a great champion for athletics,” Stevenson said, “and I, and many others, are saddened by that.”
Bill Hanson, who led his CM hockey teams to 17 state championships in 38 years, said Mr. O’Connor treated him like a son.
“I could always count on him to have my back. When you screwed up, he’d let you know it, but he’d never throw you under the bus and that was one of his greatest teaching tools.”
James Richard O’Connor grew up in the Mission Hill section of Boston. His parents divorced and he and his sister were raised by their grandmother, Mary Beasley.
“Growing up in that neighborhood,” he told the Globe in 2002, “we’d get up early in the morning to be the first ones on the playground. If you were lucky, you’d have 50 cents to buy a soda and a sandwich for lunch and then you’d go back and play all afternoon.”
Mr. O’Connor was football captain and at the now-defunct Mission High where he also lettered in basketball and baseball. He was greatly influenced by his football coach, Jake Lyons, and Mr. O’Connor knew then he wanted to be a teacher and coach.
“Football was my first love,” Mr. O’Connor noted, “but I couldn’t get the scholarship money to go to UMass.”
Curry College offered financial aid but did not yet have a football program. There, he was basketball captain and an all-conference outfielder, both for coach Jack Vallely.
When Mr. O’Connor was enshrined in Curry’s Hall of Fame, Jack O’Connor, a quarterback at the college in the 1980s, presented the award.
Mr. O’Connor and Mary Hennessy met as neighbors on Mission Hill and were co-workers at Angell Memorial Hospital when he needed a job to pay for college. They married in 1959.
The couple resided in West Roxbury for 46 years before moving to Norwood.
“Jim was a great man and a kind Christian gentleman. Many of his friends called him Gentleman Jim. His accomplishments were many, but he never bragged about them,” recalled Mary, who said she attended so many high school games that the MIAA gave her a lifetime pass
Ed Muller, one of Mr. O’Connor’s closest friends and his assistant coach at CM from 1966-75, said his first handshake with Mr. O’Connor ``was something I will never forget.’’
The two friends spoke on the telephone every Sunday until shortly before Mr. O’Connor’s death.
`Our practices at the old VA field began at 3 p.m. and ended at 5 p.m. and Jim would say `if you can’t get it done by 5, you can’t get it done,’’ Muller recalled. ``He was honest, and he would tell you the truth – but gently.’’
As AD at Framingham High, Mr. O’Connor originated the Salute to Framingham Dinner which honored townspeople for their work with youth and raised money for extracurricular programs, including athletics.
Gene Thayer, Framingham’s former superintendent, said Mr. O’Connor was a great organizer who never got flustered and was always positive. “He would often say to me, ‘the day will get better,’ “ Thayer recalled.
In addition to Mary and their son Jack, Mr. O’Connor leaves his sons James of Westwood and David of Norfolk; his daughter Kristen Foxx of Dedham; six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A funeral mass will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church in West Roxbury where Mr. O’Connor was a longtime parishioner.
When CM’s undefeated 1971 football team held its 50th reunion, they took a sentimental journey to Jim and Mary’s home.
Steve Fratalia, the team’s tri-captain and reunion organizer recalled the visit.
“We laughed. We hugged. We cried,” he said. “And we thanked them both for all they had done for us and for the love they gave us. What a special moment.”
Marvin Pave can be reached at email@example.com