Campus & Community

O’Connor enjoys musical send-off

5 min read

Departing expert on the history of Boston has been teaching at the Extension School for 36 years

Thomas O'Connor, who has taught at the Extension School for more than three decades and is retiring at the end of this semester, has never missed a class. 'When you have 100 to 150 students waiting for you, you just can't not show up. It's a great responsibility.' (Staff photo Kris Snibbe/Harvard News Office)

Thomas O’Connor was handing back some unclaimed blue books when the drumming began. He looked up quizzically for a moment, then returned to his task. A teacher with as much classroom experience as O’Connor was not about to be distracted by a little noise.

But the drumming continued, a persistent marching beat, growing louder by the second. Suddenly, the door flew open and a procession invaded the room. It was led by a tall man tapping smartly on a parade drum and a woman playing a martial air on a fife. They were followed by two young women bearing an enormous bouquet of flowers, and a trim, gray-haired man with a neatly clipped mustache. O’Connor’s quizzical look had turned to one of amazement and delight.

“I am Michael Shinagel, dean of Continuing Education,” the gray-haired man said, stepping up on the podium. “As you know, this is Professor O’Connor’s last class, and as Samuel Johnson wrote in his final ‘Idler’ essay, ‘There are few things not purely evil, of which we can say, without some emotion of uneasiness, this is the last.’ On behalf of the thousands of students who have had the pleasure of studying with Professor O’Connor, I would like to present this distinguished service award.”

O’Connor, visibly moved, accepted the bronze plaque. The class, nearly filling the large lecture room in Emerson Hall, burst into applause. Since neither O’Connor nor his long-running course on the history of Boston could by any stretch of the imagination be considered purely evil, emotions of uneasiness were running high. But in a few moments it was all over. Shinagel and entourage, led by drum and fife, exited the room, leaving only the vase of flowers behind.

“Now how do you top that?” O’Connor exclaimed. “These are the things that will keep you coming back to the Extension program year after year. You never know what will happen!”

O’Connor, 82, an emeritus professor of history at Boston College, has been teaching in the Harvard Extension School for 36 years. It began with a course in American history at the Old South Meeting House in Boston organized by the Lowell Institute. In 1975, when Shinagel became dean of Continuing Education, he asked O’Connor if he would like to bring his course to Harvard.

“At first I said no because I thought I’d never get the students in Cambridge that I had in Boston, but he said, ‘Why don’t you try it for one year?’”

O’Connor gave it a shot and has been teaching at Harvard ever since. Eventually, he dropped his original two-semester course in American history and began teaching a one-semester course on the history of Boston. But it was hard cramming in everything from the Puritans to the busing crisis, so he expanded it to two semesters.

O’Connor’s misgivings about the quality of Cambridge students turned out to be largely unfounded.

“The happiest thing about the experience has been the students. I so much enjoy the adult learners. The older people have so much more life experience. You’ll get someone in the class who says, ‘My dad knew Michael Curley,’ or ‘My uncle was in the Boston police strike.’ It makes things so much more interesting.”

The author of many books on Boston history, O’Connor has seen the character of the city change profoundly since he began writing about it. His first book on Boston was a short history of the city titled “Bibles, Brahmins, and Bosses” (1976). It chronicles the Colonial era, the rise of the 19th century Protestant elite, and finally the growth of the Irish political machine.

But when he updated the book in 2001, he realized the old title no longer reflected the city’s story.

“Between 1975 and 2000, the city of Boston changed so much demographically. The Latin, black, and Asian populations became so much more important. It’s a very healthy diversity.”

O’Connor retitled the book “The Hub: Boston Past and Present.”

O’Connor can claim yet another distinction. In all his years of teaching at the Extension School, he has never missed a class.

“When you have 100 to 150 students waiting for you, you just can’t not show up. It’s a great responsibility.”

He said that he will miss teaching, but he has decided that it will be best to retire while his dynamic, engaging lecture style and his perfect attendance record are still intact.

“I don’t want to become some old crock trying to remember his lines.”

But there will still be plenty to do. He is working on a new book called “The Athens of America” on social reform movements in Boston before the Civil War. He also expects to deliver an occasional lecture, and he will continue to serve as the official university historian of Boston College, a sort of one-man institutional memory.

“I’m really very pleasantly ensconced. I hope to continue to make a contribution.”