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David J. O'Connor; served Mission Hill voters 2 decades

DAVID J. O’CONNOR
DAVID J. O’CONNOR
By Laurie D. Willis
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2011

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David J. “Okie’’ O’Connor, a former funeral home proprietor and longtime state representative from Mission Hill whose generosity fueled a loyal following on Beacon Hill and in his community, died of heart failure May 5 at Doctors Hospital in Sarasota, Fla. The former Hull resident was 86.

“He was always willing to help others,’’ said Bob Quinn of Dorchester, former Massachusetts attorney general and speaker of the House of Representatives. “In his business [the David J. O’Connor Funeral Home], he supported the local community. He had a great reputation for helping people in the district, whether they had the money for the funeral services or not.’’

Quinn met Mr. O’Connor more than 50 years ago when they served together in the Massachusetts Legislature.

“When I first met him, he was very affable and very helpful because he was the legislator with more experience, and I was brand new,’’ Quinn said. “He was very gracious and cooperative.’’

Quinn said Mr. O’Connor never hesitated to stick his neck out for colleagues or causes, even taking the unpopular position of supporting a tax increase “to do some of the things the legislators wanted to do. David supported that, although it’s never good to raise taxes,’’ Quinn said. “But he survived that.’’

Mr. O’Connor also survived taking on political heavyweights in a fight for House speaker.

“That speaker’s fight took about two or three days,’’ said Quinn, retired from politics but still practicing law. “The president of the United States [John F. Kennedy], Governor [Endicott] Peabody, and the US Democratic senator [Ted Kennedy] were all opposed to John F. Thompson being speaker; but David was in the Navy in World War II, and Thompson was in the Army during WWII, and they were friends, so he supported Thompson for the job anyway, despite the weight of the men who were opposed. That battle for speaker came out successfully for Mr. Thompson.’’

Mr. O’Connor’s love for politics emanated, in part, from his upbringing in a close-knit community, Quinn said. He said Mr. O’Connor began as a community activist.

Mr. O’Connor served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives from 1951 to 1970, according to an official at the House clerk’s office. He was a member of the House Rules Committee and sergeant at arms.

“David and I became friends while working together,’’ Quinn said. “We were both from Boston, and as legislators, our similar interests included finance, consumer protection, housing opportunities, and supporting the governors we served.’’

Mr. O’Connor served under governors Paul A. Dever, John Foster Furcolo, and Peabody.

According to a 1956 Globe article, Mr. O’Connor helped secure the release of a Dorchester mother of four who was arrested and taken from her home at 4:30 a.m. for alleged parking violations. Mr. O’Connor later filed two bills in the Legislature designed to prevent such incarcerations.

He and another supporter of the bill told The Globe at the time that they were not questioning the woman’s guilt but merely the manner and hour of the day at which she was taken from her home.

His legislative tenure was not without controversy.

In 1962, Mr. O’Connor appeared before the Boston Finance Commission after a neighbor complained about his acquisition of a city-owned lot behind his home. The complaint was later withdrawn.

During his testimony, he said his purchase of the property was entirely proper although he had to go through two auctions to obtain it, according to The Globe. Mr. O’Connor said he wanted to remove what he characterized as a “black cloud’’ over his purchase of the parcel.

After Mr. O’Connor testified, one finance commission member, Colonel Maxwell B. Grossman, declared: “There’s no cloud on you as far as I’m concerned.’’

Quinn said Mr. O’Connor was very well respected and liked by many.

“I’m going to miss his genuineness and his pleasant storytelling,’’ Quinn said. “He wasn’t known to be a drinker, but he liked to visit and chat and talk about old times, and I’ll miss that.’’

Mr. O’Connor was born in Boston and graduated from Mission Hill High School. He also attended Boston School of Anatomy and Embalming, the former Staley College in Brookline, and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, according to information supplied by the House clerk’s office.

As a child, Mr. O’Connor enjoyed playing sports with his buddies, said lifelong friend Jim Cummings of Westwood, who met him in first grade.

“He liked to play all the local sports,’’ Cummings said. “We made up a lot of our own games. This was during the Depression, and we’d get a bicycle tire and cut it up and make a bar out of it and play Kick the Bar, which was almost like a baseball game.’’

When they were eighth graders, Mr. O’Connor, Cummings, and other Mission Hill boys started calling themselves The Mohawks.

“There was a bunch of us guys who got together and started playing basketball, and we decided we were going to be friends and stay friends,’’ Cummings said. “Most of the streets in Mission Hill were named after Native Americans, and somebody suggested we call ourselves The Mohawks. There were about 14 of us at the time.’’

Like many young men in the early 1940s, Mr. O’Connor and Cummings enlisted in the military after graduation. Mr. O’Connor was in the Navy, stationed on the USS Chester in the Pacific, and was a Pearl Harbor survivor. Once home from the war, they rarely discussed it, Cummings said.

“Everybody that knew Dave liked him and liked to be around him,’’ Cummings said. “He always had a good outlook on everything and a positive outlook on life. I’m 86, and we still talked about our aspirations for the future. Many times, we said we were going to make it to 90 together. I’ll miss his company.’’

Mr. O’Connor died holding the hand of his longtime partner, Patricia Wanders, with whom he shared a close relationship for 21 years, said her daughter, Nancy Wanders of Hummelstown, Pa.

“They grew up in Mission Hill together, and my mom got married to another Mission Hill boy, Robert Wanders. When he passed away, David handled my father’s funeral arrangements, and they just met up again at that point.’’

Mr. O’Connor had a summer home at Gun Rock Beach in Hull, and he moved there permanently after he retired, said Randy Proietto, Nancy Wanders’s husband. The couple lived together there and at her home in Nokomis, Fla.

Nancy Wanders said the bond between Mr. O’Connor and her mother included exercising in the pool together for at least an hour daily. “They had a very strong relationship,’’ she said. “David was very loving, very caring, and always thought of others.’’

Although the couple never legally married, they had a private ceremony performed by a minister “so they could be married in the eyes of the Lord,’’ Nancy Wanders said.

Besides Patricia Wanders and her daughter Nancy, Mr. O’Connor leaves her four other children, Patricia Mytkowicz of Duxbury; Robert Wanders of Lancaster, Calif., Debra Wanders of Palm Harbor, Fla., and Jeffrey Wanders of Clearwater, Fla.; and many nieces and nephews. Funeral services have been held.

“All of us were close to David,’’ Nancy Wanders said. “We really liked him for our mom. He would always give her flowers, and he’d always say, ‘My Patricia, the love of my life.’ ’’

Globe correspondent Laurie D. Willis can be reached at lauriedwillis@hotmail.com