After years of squabbling, a native son remembered

A park dedicated to the memory of Dorchester native Daniel Emmett O'Connor has been recently constructed. A park dedicated to the memory of Dorchester native Daniel Emmett O'Connor has been recently constructed. (John Bohn/Globe Staff)
By Michele McPhee
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008
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The words "Port Norfolk Remembers" are etched into a granite stone placed on a triangle of grass that memorializes Daniel Emmett O'Connor, a son of Dorchester and a State Department diplomat.

Boston city officials cannot make that same claim of remembering, however.

O'Connor was among the 259 passengers and crew members killed aboard Pan Am Flight 103 when the plane was felled by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, 20 years ago.

In 2000 a sign was hung in this tiny seaside neighborhood in front of the small dirt quadrangle intersection of Walnut, Redfield, Water, and Port Norfolk streets that read: "Future site of the Daniel Emmett O'Connor Memorial Park." That sign would come to symbolize a staggering breakdown in city government that left the site a scrubby mess of dirt for nearly a decade.

O'Connor was 31 when he was killed returning from a mission to Cyprus, where he oversaw the construction of a US embassy. His death affected his family dramatically, especially his father, Daniel "Big Dan" O'Connor Sr., a decorated Boston Police officer, and his mother, Helen. They sought solace in their Catholic faith and in the idea that their son's service to his country would not be forgotten in the Dorchester enclave where they raised their four children.

"It was really hard. His father had a really hard time with Danny's death," said Helen O'Connor, 82. She talked about the loss while sitting on her couch, where a charcoal sketch of her son and a frame containing the badge he wore as a member of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security hung over her head. "My husband would have loved to have seen that park finished. He used to say, 'I hope it's done before I die.' "

The 31-year Boston Police veteran was devastated each time he walked by the incomplete site.

"He had this sadness each time he saw it," Helen O'Connor said. "I really can't understand why it took so long. It's such a small area."

The senior O'Connor died on May 9, 2007 - long before a single blade of grass would be planted in the park, which had been planned and approved with his help.

A Globe review of city documents relating to the park's construction revealed a confusing tangle of bureaucratic infighting between the Boston Parks Department and the neighborhood architect who designed the project.

In 1999 the Port Norfolk Neighborhood Association voted to recognize O'Connor, their "friend and neighbor," by dedicating a beautified public space in The Port, as Dorchester natives refer to the area near the intersection of Morrissey Boulevard and Neponset Avenue, in honor of his sacrifice.

In September 2004, according to city documents, a contract was signed between the city and architect John Ryther with Icon Parks Designs. Ryther, a Port Norfolk resident, was awarded a planning grant for $15,000 to come up with a design. His firm took $10,000, and $5,000 was awarded to an artist, Ross Miller, who would supply a rendering, according to the documents.

Months later, the Browne Fund Committee, a private trust devoted to public space improvements in the city, awarded a construction grant for $100,000 to break ground on O'Connor Park. In total, $145,000 was earmarked for the project, according to city documents.

However, construction did not begin at the site until last month. Ryther said Fleming Bros., a local construction company, was paid $56,000 to plant grass and erect a curbing. Today, grass has been planted over the bedraggled area. A circular granite curbing that will eventually contain a flagpole has been laid down. The etched stone with Special Agent O'Connor's story is now set in the grass.

Ken Crasco, chief landscape architect for the Boston Parks Department, blamed the delay on lofty plans submitted by Ryther's firm could not be approved by the Boston Arts Commission.

"The project submitted by the architect was not right for the small space and came in over budget," he said.

But the architect says Crasco "trashed" his designs and said the Parks Department stonewalled the construction by refusing to issue contracts to his company.

Maureen Feeney, the Boston City Council president, began to field complaints from the O'Connor family and Port Norfolk neighbors dismayed by the slow pace of the park's construction two years ago. She began to put pressure on Ryther and city officials with e-mails.

On Aug. 16, 2006, she wrote to Crasco saying: "Daniel's parents have been waiting a long time (over 18 years) to see this come to fruition, and it is extremely important that we make some serious strides toward its completion, considering their advanced age."

This week, Feeney said the delays were "unacceptable" and "disrespectful" to the O'Connor family.

In the end, Ryther's plans for the site, which included a monument to O'Connor and the neighborhood's history of shipbuilding, and the artist's rendering were a waste of time and money, as neither were ever used.

Both Crasco and Ryther agreed on one thing in recent interviews. It is an unnecessary tragedy that Daniel O'Connor Sr. died the year before the park was even started.

"It is terribly sad that Mr. O'Connor never saw the park for his son," Crasco said.

The O'Connors are a Boston family dedicated to neighborhood, church, and public service. They settled in Dorchester back in 1928 and never left. Danny was their only son, and he was doted on by his parents and three sisters.

He graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology with an engineering degree and took a job with Turner Construction.

He took a "tremendous cut in pay" to work for the State Department in 1986 because he was troubled that the US embassy in Moscow had to be leveled when it was discovered that Soviet infiltrators had planted bugs throughout the new construction, his mother said.

After his death, State Department officials credited O'Connor with helping to design embassies built with bomb-resistant materials.

He had worked in North Africa and Pakistan and had planned to spend two years overseeing the construction of an embassy in Cyprus when he was killed in the terrorist attack.

Thousands attended his funeral Mass at St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church, including then-mayor Raymond Flynn, State Department officials, and residents of the Port Norfolk neighborhood. Many of those people have since moved away.

"It's been 20 years. It's a different neighborhood. A lot of people don't remember Danny now," Helen O'Connor said. The metal sign that long marked the triangle as the future site of her son's memorial park is now on her front porch.

She is grateful that she will be able to see the park completed, and walk through it with her daughters and grandchildren.

"At least now people can go to that corner and know who he was, and that terrorists took my son."

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