Around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, December 3, Erin’s grandfather, and the kids’ only great-grandfather, passed away in hospice. He was 97.
Joseph Howard O’Connor, known to all as Howard, was my mother-in-law Rosemarie’s father. He was the head of a household of eleven children (including two sets of twins), on a South Dakotan farm that’s still within the family. He saw the Great Depression up close, saw drought and flood, and produced a family of children and grandchildren that has written speeches for George McGovern and Bill Clinton, and argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.
I first met Howard almost eighteen years ago, likely during a great Christmas-time family reunion when Erin showed me off to this huge Irish Catholic family that practically picked me up and turned me over in order to make sure I was worthy of dating the eldest daughter’s eldest daughter. He, with his wife Lucille, had pride of place in that gathering, clearly bathed in the wealth of the long love this family had built for each other.
To say the least, I was a little bit intimidated. I could sense the history, and it was asking a lot to try and impress the man. But he welcomed me with open arms. For all his hard work, and the resolve you needed to carry a family on a South Dakotan farm, he was warm and gregarious, eager to laugh at the stories you shared, and happy to share his own. I remember seeing him during the rehearsal dinner that my father-in-law organized on the eve of my wedding — a huge get-together where both our families turned out. My uncle Dieter (also now passed away), was sitting across from him, and I saw him and heard him laughing, hard, at the story Dieter was telling him. And in the instant, I saw the connection between them form in an instant. Respect and friendship, warmth and welcome, freely offered, and readily accepted if given. That was the man that Howard was.
I regret I did not get a chance to talk to Howard more than I did, to learn more about his story, but I’m grateful to have known him, to have listened to him, and to have had his welcome.
Funeral services are planned for 10:30 a.m. on Monday morning at St. Agnes Church in Vermillion, South Dakota. There will also be a prayer service on the Sunday evening beforehand. Unfortunately, Erin and I can’t be there, much as we’d like, but we will be there in spirit. The family requests that memorials be made to St. Agnes Charities (St. Vincent dePaul) or St Agnes Catholic Church.