Beloved former PCHS principal remembered as a caring, quiet leader
Bob O’Connor died earlier this month at 59
Bob O’Connor, a longtime educator and former principal of Park City High School praised for his kindness and strong, quiet leadership, died last week. He was 59.
O’Connor led Park City High School from 2012 until announcing a leave of absence for health reasons in late 2017. In his time there, he strove to end bullying, fostered a culture that yielded new clubs and programs and worked to support all students, especially those who needed a helping hand, colleagues said.
He worked for the district for 23 years, according to an obituary posted online, including many years in leadership positions at Treasure Mountain Junior High School.
He died Thursday from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to the obituary.
Tim McConnell, a former Park City associate superintendent who worked closely with O’Connor, said he cultivated fierce loyalty from his employees, empowering them by trusting that they’d do their jobs well.
He said O’Connor advocated for students who needed more support than others.
“He understands that everyone needs to have a sense of belonging, and he’s not going to draw lines around what someone’s approach is to being who they are. He’s not going to worry about those things — he was just going to support them,” McConnell said.
Dozens of tributes poured in to an online memorial for O’Connor, with some words repeated many times over: “caring,” “supportive,” “trust,” “empower,” “best,” “quiet leader.”
O’Connor grew up in Washington and played football for Vanderbilt University, according to the obituary. Jennifer Billow, who interacted with O’Connor both as a parent and in her work for the Park City Education Foundation, said O’Connor had a physical presence that commanded attention.
In his first year at the high school, Billow said, O’Connor put his foot down to stop hazing, and worked strongly against bullying.
“I know when my son came out and I was so worried about him getting bullied, he said ‘Well mom, anyone who bullied me would get in trouble,’” Billow said. “… He wasn’t worried about that at all, surprisingly.”
Billow remembered O’Connor as someone who was always present to support the school community.
“He was a huge champion,” she said. “… I don’t know how he did it frankly. He was at every game, every concert.”
Moe Hickey, who was the president of the Park City Board of Education for several years while O’Connor worked in the district, remembered him as a “gentle giant” who engendered the most staff loyalty of anyone among the district’s leaders.
He said one of the things that made him good at his job was that he knew its mission.
“His core thing was he understood he was there for students,” Hickey said. “… Just really one of the good people. He just always had a little bit of a grin.”
Hickey said one of his favorite memories of O’Connor is how he dealt with the potential controversy about gender-neutral bathrooms.
The district’s policy, Hickey recalled, was that schools needed board approval to add a sign in or on any district building.
O’Connor called Hickey one day and told him the policy only mentioned adding signs, and didn’t say anything about taking them away.
“We both laughed and I said go for it,” Hickey said. “He walked over … with a screwdriver and we had gender-neutral bathrooms.”
That wasn’t the only example of O’Connor supporting LGBTQ students.
Billow recalled when then-Gov. Gary Herbert was scheduled to visit Park City High School in 2014 to acknowledge it as the top Advanced Placement school in the state.
The school’s Gay-Straight Alliance wanted to stage a respectful protest regarding the governor’s stance on LGBTQ issues, Billow said, and passed out rainbow armbands for supporters to wear.
“The president of the club asked Bob if he would wear an armband and he was like, ‘Of course. Of course I’ll wear an armband,’” Billow recalled.
Photos from that day show Herbert presenting the trophy to O’Connor, who took off his sportcoat and was wearing a rainbow armband prominently tied around his right arm.
“He didn’t make a big deal about it, it was just of course,” Billow said. “His actions — I think with Bob, he wasn’t a man of a lot of words. His actions showed a lot more than his words.”
Indigo Mason, who was active as a student in the club at the time, said that gesture resonated with members of the GSA.
“I was blown away,” Mason said. “I did not think that teachers would do it, let alone the principal.”
Mason said a generation of Park City students felt O’Connor’s presence, and that they knew he had their back.
“From the very beginning, he was like ‘This is Park City, we are a community, we are a family. There will be a tough love, you’re going to try to do the best work you can and we’re going to be together through all of this,’” Mason said. “… (He) was so proud for every single one of us, for our respective things.”
O’Connor’s obituary says that the years he spent working in the Park City School District were the best of his life.
“Bob O’Connor will be remembered as a player, coach, educator, and father – but mostly for the values he lived: unconditional love, forgiveness, believing in oneself, appreciating every facet life has to offer, loving beyond measure, and staying faithful and strong in the face of adversity,” the obituary states. “He touched the lives of thousands of students, staff, and players.”
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