Maurice O'Connor and his wife Ellen. | Courtesy of the O'Connor family

Maurice O’Connor, a gentle soul, who touched countless lives in Forest Park and at his Wisconsin resort, died peacefully on Aug. 24, 2015 from the effects of a stroke. For 85 years, O’Connor retained his childlike sense of wonder and shared his passion for poetry, history and literature with generations of family and friends. He also kept up an incredible level of energy. 

The day before he suffered his stroke, O’Connor was climbing a scaffold at his beloved Back O’Beyond Resort to paint the second story, part of his endless improvements to the lodge. The next morning, he was enjoying another favorite activity, making some “nice” pancakes for his family, when the symptoms started. 

O’Connor was born into a West Side Irish family on Oct. 21, 1930. He was one of six children attending church and school in St. Angela Parish, then St. Ignatius High School, where he graduated with the class of 1948. He later took courses at Wright Junior College and Northwestern University. But O’Connor didn’t acquire his vast knowledge from formal education. It was his insatiable curiosity that gave him such a sharp mind. 

He was only 18 when he married the love of his life, Ellen Davis. They would remain together for 67 years. “He was very devoted to mom,” his daughter Mary Ellen Leto said, and took good care of her in her later years. “I was so blessed to have such a wonderful father for so many years,” she added. “His heart was so full of love, I thought it would explode.

“He loved Forest Park. He thought his house at Elgin and Adams was the oldest one in Forest Park. He said it had been a boarding house that had been moved from Madison Street. He took great pride in that and put up a plaque.” The property resembled a family compound as O’Connor also owned the house in back.

Before moving to Forest Park, he had raised seven kids at 632 Gunderson in Oak Park. It was a tight-knit block and kids flocked to the O’Connor home. “He was like my second father,” Jim Carney recalled. “We spent so much time there. He was always mentoring and educating us. He even knew our grades. He loved to cook and we had halibut dinners there on Fridays during Lent.”

Carney and his friends, Jim Sweany and Jim Hayes, used to hang out with O’Connor’s sons, Bill and Dick. They recalled Dick volunteering to serve in the Vietnam War. “We used to discuss the war with Mr. O’Connor,” Carney remembered. “He was gentle and kind and it was OK to disagree with him. He was very accepting.”

After “Mr. O’Connor” bought the resort in 1972, Carney didn’t see as much of him and his family because they spent their summers up north. Carney and his buddies would make the trek to Hayward, Wisconsin. “It was a lot of windshield time,” Carney said but it was worth it to relax along the wooded shore of Teal Lake. O’Connor was a great storyteller and never lost his joy in retelling his favorite ghost story, “The Golden Arm,” around a crackling fire. 

“He had so many dear friends in Hayward,” Leto said. “We’ll have a little ceremony for him up there.” She said her father was more of a builder than a fisherman. He was always thinking of projects to improve the resort. “His main wish is to keep it in the family for generations.” Back O’Beyond has a family-friendly environment, thanks to O’Connor. “His favorite thing was a gathering of friends and family,” Leto said.

O’Connor’s family had emigrated from County Kerry and he made three trips to visit their ancestral village. He arranged a large reunion of the clan in Kerry. He loved to travel and at the age of 81, ventured to Rome and Israel with his grandson, Joe O’Connor. They spent four days exploring the Eternal City before flying to the Holy Land. “We spent 3-4 hours walking through Jerusalem in hundred-degree heat,” he recalled. “It was rough terrain with slippery rocks. At the end of the tour, the guide said to grandpa, ‘I don’t want to embarrass you, sir, but you’re my new hero.”

A man of great faith, O’Connor wanted to go to all the places Jesus had visited: Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee. “We were kind of like buddies,” Joe recalled, “He talked with you, not down to you.” He could also talk about a vast array of subjects. Besides good conversation, he enjoyed good meals. “Nothing could please him more than a good piece of fish and boiled potatoes,” Joe said.

O’Connor didn’t just befriend the 19 grandkids in Joe’s generation, he connected with his great-grandkids, too. 

“He was a great teacher,” Miles Mockler, the second-oldest of 20 great-grandchildren recalled. When the 15-year-old was trying to get into Fenwick High School, “He helped me study for the entrance exam. He loved to learn. We had to study 400 dictionary words. He loved words.”

Mockler spent his summers working at the resort. “I took care of Great-Grandmother Ellen,” he said. “It was sad and painful for him to see Alzheimer’s.” But O’Connor even used this heartache to help others. An Oak Park neighbor, Doug Wyman, reconnected with O’Connor at the Alzheimer’s Care Group at Belmont Village. 

“He was such a great storyteller,” Wyman recalled. “The group would really miss him when he couldn’t make it.” 

Mockler wasn’t the only great-grandson to profit from O’Connor’s wisdom and laugh at his Irish jokes. He helped his great grandkids with their homework and science projects. 

“He was very intelligent but not a know-it-all. He loved life and was just a wonderful man.” 

Though he is only a sophomore, Mockler already knows his goal in life: “I want to be as great a man as Maurice.”

O’Connor’s nephew, Dan O’Connor, knew him as “Uncle Red” because “when I was growing up, he had red hair.” O’Connor grew up in Oak Park, so he was very close with his cousins. “We always got together for family functions. He was gentle and loved to tell stories related to politics or religion. After church, he’d ask, ‘What did you think of the homily?’ He was always trying to teach us something. He was never angry, always encouraging.”

Uncle Red became the family historian, traveling to Ireland to complete the family tree.

After his funeral Mass at St. Edmund, family and friends gathered at Brian Boru in Forest Park, filling the Irish pub with laughter and memories. 

Maurice would have loved it.

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.

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