By John Rogan
Joe O’Connor, poet, Saint Vincent College alumni, and Eulalia Books author, passed away on Monday, April 13, 2020, from complications due to COVID-19. Joe graduated from Saint Vincent in 1965 and returned to the college to collaborate with Eulalia Books on the Joe O’Connor Poetry Series, the inaugural publication of which was Joe’s own chapbook Why Poetry?
Joe was born on Monday, Oct. 13, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York. Joe was drafted into military service after his graduation from Saint Vincent College in 1965, and served in Vietnam for the next two years under the 19th Combat Engineer Battalion. After Joe and his wife Holly O’Connor’s retirement, Joe took up poetry again, which he began writing as a student.
Michelle Gil-Montero, associate professor of English and editor of Eulalia Press, was the person who first brought to O’Connor the idea of publishing his poetry; this led to the production of Why Poetry?
“He wrote poetry, not for fame or fortune, but for the sheer joy of the process.” - Clair Sirofchuck
Gil-Montero said she will remember Joe as being a great teacher, in addition to being a wonderful poet and dear friend.
“He was 100% real, always himself, always present,” Gil-Montero explained. “In fact, he called for a heightened level of presence in people, because he himself was so awake, so emotionally available. He was not afraid, as so many of us are, to feel.”
Gil-Montero said that he taught her, above all, how important it is to feel everything.
“Through Joe, I realized how much I tend to look away from uncomfortable, painful, inconvenient, and ‘unimportant’ things,” she said. “But Joe would say that grief, pain, frustration, inconvenience – these things teach us the most important lessons of all.”
Julia Snyder, junior English major and Eulalia Books intern, stated that Joe O’Connor was the kind of person who gives her faith in humanity.
“He was proof that goodness can survive even the harshest trials, and that hope can be found in the most unlikely of places,” said Snyder. “I feel privileged to have met and worked with him.”
Daniel Whirlow, junior English major and another Eulalia Books intern, explained that he was fortunate enough to be a part of the class that helped publish Joe’s chapbook. According to Whirlow, O’Connor answered students’ questions thoughtfully and eloquently when he visited the class to discuss his poetry.
“Even though I barely knew him, I could tell poetry gave him an incredible joy,” Whirlow stated. “I’m honored to have been someone he shared that joy with, and I’ll always cherish the wisdom and poetry of Joe O’Connor.”
Micaela Kreuzwieser, senior English major and Eulalia Books intern, said that O’Connor was a thoughtful and introspective person, and his poetry was beautifully evocative.
“The time and effort spent working with him on his chapbook Why Poetry? during the 2019 fall semester will be forever treasured and held dear,” she said.
Clair Sirofchuck, sophomore English major and member of the class that produced Why Poetry?, said that O’Connor would be inspiring to anyone who wanted to create or who aspired to dreams they thought unattainable.
“Joe would say that grief, pain, frustration, inconvenience – these things teach us the most important lessons of all.” - Michelle Gil-Montero
“He wrote poetry, not for fame or fortune, but for the sheer joy of the process,” she explained.
Sirofchuck stated that O’Connor’s welcoming nature could draw in even the quietest person, and once speaking with him, that person would feel like the only person in the room and above all, that they mattered.
“His ability to find joy in the creative process alone and in the ordinary people around him struck me deeply, and I will never forget our class’s experience. I look at him and say, ‘there is a writer!’” Sirofchuck said.
An obituary for Joe O’Connor is available here and a tribute from writer Bob MacGinnes is available here. Below is a selection from Joe’s poem “Double Negative,” published in Why Poetry?, which is available for purchase from Eulalia Books.
“That is when I discovered that we feel more than we ever say, and no one wants to hear war stories or love stories gone wrong or frustration or the pain of being alive and knowing you are mortal—and yet they should hear about those things to be aware of actual life, to accept living fully, completely and to take action to create a wonderful life. And the answer is poetry.” - Joe O’Connor, 1941-2020.