“The O’Connell” of Florida

 

By ancient Irish custom, the chieftain of a noble Irish family was referred to as "The (family name)". 

In Florida, "The O’Connell" refers to only one person: Stephen C. O’Connell, distinguished lawyer, Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court and revered sixth President of the University of Florida.

 
 

Stephen Cornelius O’Connell was born on January 12, 1916 at West Palm Beach, Florida. He attended public schools in West Palm Beach and Titusville, Florida.   After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Florida from 1934 to 1940.   While he was a University of Florida student, he was elected president of the sophomore class, the student body and the Florida Blue Key leadership society.   He was also a star athlete, captained the varsity boxing team, set the University record for fastest knock-out (twelve seconds including the count), won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) middle-weight championship, and was later inducted into the Florida Gator F Club Hall of Fame as a distinguished letter winner.  O’Connell was awarded his bachelor’s degree from the College of Business Administration and his law degree from the College of Law in 1940.

 

After briefly practicing law in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, O’Connell accepted an appointment as the civilian director of physical training for the U.S. Third Air Force in Tampa, Florida, and then entered active duty service with U.S. Army Air Corps when the United States entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  During the war, he served with the U.S. Fifth Air Force in Brisbane, Australia and as executive officer of the 312th Bombardment Group in the western Pacific, and completed his war-time service as a major.

 
 

After he returned from the war, O’Connell married Rita McTigue and restarted his Fort Lauderdale law practice in 1946.   He also became an active member of the Broward County Democratic Party, and participated in the gubernatorial and senatorial campaign organizations of Dan McCarty, George Smathers and LeRoy Collins.

 

In appreciation of his loyal work on behalf of the Democratic Party, Governor LeRoy Collins appointed O’Connell to the Florida Supreme Court in 1955.   His time on the Florida Supreme Court followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and O’Connell’s judicial philosophy was characterized by conservatism and gradualist integration.   His fellow justices elected him Chief Justice of the Court in 1967, a position he would hold only briefly, until the Florida Board of Regents selected him to be the 6th President of the University of Florida later in 1967.

 

 
A 1965 video history of the University of Florida
narrated by then Florida Supreme Court Justice Stephen Collins:
 
        
 
        
 

O’Connell was the first alumnus of the University to be appointed as its President.  When O’Connell assumed the Presidency of the University in 1967, the student protest movement was peaking nation-wide, and numerous demonstrations, both peaceful and militant, were held on the Florida campus during his six-year term.  Faculty-administration relations were also strained, because many professors were sympathetic to the student protesters and their various social and political goals.  O’Connell canceled classes on May 6, 1970, the day after the Kent State shootings, and declared a day of mourning.   It was the first time classes had ever been canceled at the University of Florida.

 

The University of Florida had integrated racially in 1958 without violence and with little protest, but by the 1967 fall term, only sixty-one black students were enrolled, and many black students were actually foreign exchange students.   On balance, O’Connell’s administration did much to further integrate African-Americans into the mainstream of the University of Florida’s academic life. When O’Connell retired in 1973, 642 black students were enrolled, a ten-fold increase, and the faculty included nineteen black professors.  O’Connell’s critics accused him of racial and political animus in his sometimes hard-line decisions, but his administration kept the University open, and classes, exams and commencements were held without serious interruption in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings, when many American universities were forced to close and send their students home.   During the August 1973 commencement proceedings, the assembled graduating students twice rose to their feet spontaneously to pay tribute to the man who guided the University through its most difficult era.

 

O’Connell’s greatest long-term impact may have been the reorganization of the University of Florida Alumni Association and the creation of an Office of Development, staffed by professional fundraisers.  The reorganization of the alumni association and advancement program led to the rapid growth of the University’s.  O’Connell began a reversal of policy and attitudes among many state legislators and academics who had previously opposed large-scale private fund-raising and endowment of Florida’s public universities. 

 

O’Connell announced his resignation on June 28, 1973.   He did not provide a specific reason, but it was known that his wife was ill with diabetes.  After retiring as U of F President, he returned to his home in Tallahassee, restarted his law practice, remained active in University affairs, and engaged in cattle ranching.   O’Connell later became the chairman and chief executive officer of Lewis State Bank, then the oldest bank in Florida, and held that position until 1983.  He also returned to the active practice of law in Tallahassee in partnership with a Tampa-based firm.

 

In 1975, O’Connell’s successor, U of F President Robert Q. Marston, presented plans for a massive new sports arena and activities center for the University of Florida.  Construction was completed in 1980, and the Stephen C. O’Connell Center was dedicated in 1981 in recognition of O’Connell’s service to his alma mater. The "O’Dome" is the venue of Florida Gator basketball games as well as other sporting events and entertainment programs:

 
 

Stephen C. O’Connell died at his cattle ranch near Tallahassee on April 13, 2001, at the age of 85.   O’Connell was preceded in death by his first wife, Rita McTigue O’Connell and his son, Martin O’Connell.   He was survived by his second wife, Cynthia Bowlin O’Connell, three children, and eight grandchildren.

 

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