Remembering Mayor O'Connor: A year later, family still struggling to let him go

Public death, private grief

Most people grieve in private, but that hasn't been possible for the family of the late Mayor Bob O'Connor, who died a year ago today.

Countless tributes, words and letters of consolation from strangers, photos of their loved one taped to cash registers and Sno-Cone machines -- reminders of the loss greet widow Judy O'Connor and their three children every day.

"You think about my dad's goal, it was to build a big community where everybody comes together," said Corey O'Connor, the couple's younger son. "And we hate to be in this position, but in a way it shows what he stood for."

The attention, though, may make it harder to get to that final stage of grieving -- acceptance.

"As far as to just sit there, to grieve, I don't know if I've done it yet," said Mrs. O'Connor as she sat with her family in her Squirrel Hill home this week. "I think [the tributes] keep Bob alive."

Today, family and friends plan to hold a private prayer service and luncheon, an exception to the open-door policy they had through 15 years in public life, including Bob O'Connor's three terms on City Council, two failed mayoral bids, service as Gov. Ed Rendell's representative in the region and attainment of his ultimate goal.

The close-knit clan was Pittsburgh's First Family from Mr. O'Connor's Jan. 3, 2006, inauguration through his death eight months later. From his funeral to this week's unveiling of a quilt memorializing his life, they've become its First Mourners, their tears often televised.

They've been honored over and over as events and places, from the city Parks Department's summer tennis tournament to the Schenley Park golf course, have been renamed for the late mayor. Organizations have put his name on their annual community service awards. He has a window at the Highmark Caring Place, and has been enshrined in the Greenfield Hall of Fame.

Though she's very grateful, all of the attention has made Mrs. O'Connor "feel kind of funny," she said. "A lot of people have lost husbands, fathers. I mean, I know with Bob being in the public eye, it's different for us, I guess. But sometimes I feel kind of guilty, too, if anybody knows what I mean. We're not the only ones losing someone."

The flip side of that emotion is the knowledge that others whose losses don't get much attention might see their public grief, and feel a little less alone.

"I think God gave us the grace to handle the funeral as we did," said the Rev. Terrence O'Connor, the elder son. "Not knowing it then, I found out that we, as a family, were inspirational to many people."

"I'm sure you've seen on TV, every interview, I'm in tears, I can't keep it together, and then I feel silly," said Heidy Garth, the late mayor's daughter. "But then, a couple of days later, there'll be a daughter who lost her father. And that girl will come up and say, 'Oh, I know exactly how you feel.' And they say, 'Oh, I sat there and I cried with you.'"

Jeanne Caliguiri led her family through a similar process after her husband, Mayor Richard Caliguiri, died in office in May 1988.

"It's very difficult, but sure, the outpouring of condolences, the phone calls, are very helpful," Mrs. Caliguiri said. "No one likes to think that anyone is forgotten who worked so hard to get where he was."

Before and after Mr. O'Connor's death, Mrs. Caliguiri advised the family. In her role as development director for the local chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, she helped raise $30,000 through the sale of bracelets emblazoned with "Everybody's Mayor ... Bob O'Connor."

Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Program Manager Sharon Pritchard said research continues into the extremely rare central nervous system lymphoma that killed Mr. O'Connor. The society is advocating legislation that would force insurance companies to pay for clinical trials of new therapies against all diseases, and Mrs. O'Connor has helped lobby.

Each member of the O'Connor family has handled the loss in a different way.

Mrs. Garth threw herself into education. She volunteers in her three daughters' schools, works in marketing research and takes courses in elementary education at Point Park University and the Community College of Allegheny County.

Terry O'Connor stopped going by "Father Terry," instead introducing himself as "Father O'Connor" at his two new parishes, Good Samaritan in Ambridge and St. John the Baptist in Baden.

Corey O'Connor took a job as a field representative for U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills. "This is some way of keeping, maybe, the political side alive -- his goals, to make a clean, safe city," he said. He also coaches Central Catholic High School's varsity golf squad.

Mrs. O'Connor works four days a week at the Caring Place, which focuses on helping grieving children. In the evenings she visits her 91-year-old father, takes long walks, or shops -- anything but sit around the house where the reminders are most personal.

For a time after her husband's death, she kept a dish full of candy corns -- one of his favorite treats -- in the dining room.

"Like Bob's really going to come back and eat them!" she said. One day, though, she came home to find them gone.

"My golf team ate them," confessed Corey O'Connor.

"I was so mad!" said Mrs. O'Connor. "I went back and bought more."

Rich Lord can be reached at or 412-263-1542. First Published September 1, 2007 4:00 AM


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