PITTSFIELD — Thomas E. O'Connell, the first president of Berkshire Community College — itself the first of the 15 two-year institutions to open in Massachusetts — was remembered by many in the area at his death on Oct. 20 in Seattle. He was 90.
O'Connell, who served in the pioneering role from 1960 until 1977, achieved a legendary status at the college because of his visible accomplishments, long service, high level of energy and renaissance interests. He also evoked the idealism of another Massachusetts native of the era, John F. Kennedy, whom he resembled.
His youthful vigor came naturally, as O'Connell was relatively very young to be sworn in as a college president, at 35. In fact, he was selected as an outstanding young leader by the Pittsfield Jaycees in 1962.
Before he left to lead a college in Bellevue, Wash., O'Connell oversaw the creation of a new BCC campus on 180 acres off West Street, which opened in 1972. He told The Eagle before his departure that he held off exploring other career opportunities until the campus was nearly completed, which occurred with the opening of the school's Environmental Center in 1976.
"President O'Connell was dedicated to education," said current BCC President Ellen Kennedy. "He led the effort to develop a strong liberal arts curriculum and insisted on out-of-classroom learning that is reflected in the FORUM Program that exists today at BCC. His legacy is palpable on the campus and we are forever thankful to him for his dedication to education and scholarship."
O'Connell arrived in Pittsfield before the founding of the college, which opened on Sept. 15, 1960, in the Central Annex building on Second Street — a former city high school located on the east side of The Common — with an initial 150 students.
He'd been hired as a consultant to the board spearheading the state's first community college and later became the school's president. The Massachusetts community colleges were championed by then-Gov. Foster Furcolo who proposed funding to launch a multicollege system, beginning here.
Some may find it difficult to believe, but a 1960 Eagle article reported that $82,950 in state funding had been allocated to help launch the first community college, and O'Connell's salary was listed at $12,246.
Thomas Wojtkowski was a youthful state representative at the time, and he filed legislation to locate a college in Pittsfield. Wojtkowski said he remembers O'Connell's passion for education.
"He was on fire about the idea of a community college," Wojtkowski said. "He was a dreamer, a worker. He had a very bright personality."
Wojtkowski's late wife, Anne Everest Wojtkowski, later went on to teach at BCC for many years before being the first woman elected mayor of Pittsfield in 1987.
Professor emeritus of philosophy Donald Lathrop remembered O'Connell as an energetic leader. "I recall him traveling around the area promoting the college," Lathrop said. "Given that it was brand new, that was quite an undertaking."
As president, O'Connell from the start stressed the liberal arts, including for students taking technical courses, and he encouraged students to think of transferring to a four-year institution.
O'Connell expressed pride in being able to continue teaching literature and drama while also serving as BCC's leader. He was also involved, along with his wife, Anne, with numerous local theater productions. Both had been active in theater for many years before arriving in Pittsfield and continued after leaving the area.
At one point, they co-starred in "Two for the See-Saw," a Town Players production, and they were known for taking on Shakespearean roles, including a scene from "Richard III," which O'Connell included in a course he taught at BCC.
He also regularly held what he called "The President's Hour," which introduced students to a range of topics in the humanities, arts and public affairs
Robert Boland, professor emeritus of theater arts at BCC, who participated in many plays with O'Connell, remembers him as a dedicated leader. "Tom had great visions of what a community college could be and he had the determination to make it happen. He was always capable of seeing his vision realized."
BCC Vice President of Community Education and Workforce Development William Mulholland was a student at the college in 1965. His late father, Mitchell Mulholland, taught at the college at the time and would sometimes host social gatherings for faculty.
"I remember he would come to our house," said Mulholland of O'Connell. "What was so amazing about Tom was that he would zero in on a younger person and engage them in conversation. And if you saw him a year later, he would remember your name and the exact conversation you had. It was absolutely unbelievable."
O'Connell was a native of Worcester who served in the Army Air Force during World War II, seeing action as a bombardier-navigator in Europe. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1950 and later earned a master's degree from Syracuse University and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts.
During the 1950s, he served as an adviser to Nelson Rockefeller while living in Venezuela and worked for the United Nations in Ecuador.
In 2007, O'Connell donated a collection of papers to BCC, including letters, photographs, newspaper clippings, his publications, speeches and teaching materials, and other items.
Donations may be made in his memory to the Berkshire Community College Foundation.