When Tom O’Connor called, he usually started the conversation without feeling any need to introduce himself.
His was the friendly voice on the other end of the line, the one you came to recognize, just as you recognize the voice of a parent or sibling. He called often and shared tips and story ideas with me during my days as a regular golf beat writer.
He also generously shared of himself. For that, I will be forever grateful.
O’Connor died of a heart attack on Sunday, Dec. 9, at his home in Shorewood. He was 70 years old. The last time I was in his home was to lend Tom a bit of assistance. He and his wife of 39 years, Virginia, needed help replacing a window air conditioning unit.
I was happy to play the part of his handyman. After all, Tom always was there for me and my family. He taught my two sons—Kevin and Jeff—the proper mechanics of how to swing a golf club when they were 11-13 years old. Because of him, they are able to hold their own in friendly games and company golf outings to this day.
Teach—that’s what Tom did. He was an accomplished golf teaching pro and the former women’s golf coach at the University of St. Francis.
In 2009, he was presented the Bill Heald Career Achievement Award by the Illinois PGA in recognition of his lengthy service to the game and his success as a teacher. He coached Illinois high school state champs—Lockport’s Drew Pierson—and Plantation Junior Golf sensations—Lockport’s Adam Saban—and ordinary folks, too.
He took the reins at USF in 2003 and worked to build the Saints into a small-school power, a process that was slow in the making and the result of his painstaking attention to the detail of recruiting. His 2011-12 women’s golf team ranked 33rd in the NAIA and captured the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Fall Classic title.
One of O’Connor’s greatest gifts was his patience. He didn’t try to rebuild a broken swing as much as he tried to touch the lives of all those he worked with through the game he loved.
I was honored when he hung a framed article I wrote about him on the wall at one of his teaching academies. For me, the act was more than one of kindness—it was a validation that I had repaid him for his service, won his respect.
“Tom O’Connor has been an inspiration to everybody,” USF freshman women’s golfer Krystal Garritson said in a news release. “His positive influence throughout the community has touched the hearts of many, and his impact in the golf world and at USF will live forever.”
Dave Laketa, the athletic director at USF, called me before he hired O’Connor. I was happy to give Tom a glowing reference. I told Laketa that hiring O’Connor would be like putting a grandfather figure in charge of the Saints’ women’s golf program.
“I don’t think you could have got a better person,” Laketa said. “When we hired him, we knew a lot about him. We had to go through the process—like I was telling you. But he was our No. 1 choice. Sometimes, you worry about how people are going to coach female athletes.
“And it was his first time, really, in the college ranks. But he was super. He just kept building up the program. He was so excited this fall. He was excited about the recruiting class that he was looking to bring in—just how he had built the program and followed in Paul’s footsteps.”
Laketa was referring to Paul Downey in remarks he made at O’Connor’s wake. Downey coaches the USF men's golf team. He spent many hours on the road with O’Connor—and on the golf course. The two laughed often.
“I remember we were playing nine holes,” Downey said. “I’m hitting the ball at least 40-50 yards past him on every hole. He hit two greens in regulation. He shoots even-par. I’m going like, ‘Man, I shoot 1- or 2-under and he’s shooting even-par. I’m hitting these greens and he’s chipping up to every one. I said, ‘Tom, this is crazy.’ ”
O’Connor could—and would—school anyone with his short game. He knew how to get up-and-down. More importantly, he knew how to push the right buttons to bring out the best in people.
“He was at our school—even though we paid him a part-time salary—he was there full-time,” Laketa said. “And he wanted to be there. It was so great to see him on some of those Saturday mornings with the younger kids and how excited he was to work with them.”
When Virginia O’Connor died a year ago, I wondered how Tom would carry on, trusted that he would not be alone because I knew his extended golf family was a large one and that his lessons would keep him occupied. I trust now that he has been reunited with Virginia in another world, one where the sun always is shining and the fairways are forever a lush green.
Three adult children—Becky, Terry and Jackie—six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, survive Tom and Virginia. I spoke to their girls at Tom’s wake, spoke of his legacy. I feel compelled now to speak to his students, to issue this challenge: Please think of Tom when you score your next sand-save on the links.
He would like that.
O’Connor was buried wearing his PGA career achievement wind jacket, a golf club in his hand, a fitting ensemble. He always dressed the part for his job. He taught me we all have a part to play in life.