Last month, New Haven lost one of its most gregarious characters and a true original. Lieutenant James K. O’Connell was a member of the New Haven Police Department for three decades, and served just as long as special assistant to Senator Joseph Lieberman. A big bear of a man, he was a self-described political junkie blessed with a wicked sense of humor and a gift for storytelling that I have never seen equaled. He died on Dec. 2 at the age of 53 — too young, we all say, but he’d never tell you that. Jimmy always reminded you that he packed a lot of living into his life.
I first met Jimmy during my junior year. I was writing a seminar paper on Lieberman’s early career as a Connecticut politician, and the senator had agreed to speak with me during a trip back to the state. The interview was conducted on the way to Bradley Airport, and as I stammered and awkwardly lobbed each question the senator’s way, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the hulking man behind the wheel was sizing me up.
I was no less intimidated when he accompanied Lieberman into the airport, leaving me on the curb holding his can of pepper spray and his gun.
But once he came back, it did not take long for the formerly stoic man to open up. “I’ve known Joe Lieberman for 30 years,” he said as we climbed back into the Mercury sedan. “Don’t you think you should talk to me?”
My half hour with the senator was followed by three hours of stories and pepperoni pizza with Jim. I drove home that day reinvigorated about my project and the world that I had just entered. The seminar paper soon became the basis for my senior essay, but I never would have continued had I not known that Jimmy would be my gatekeeper, the man to call when no one was calling me back.
Jimmy and I would meet every once in a while — sometimes for an interview and other times just to catch up and talk politics or his other passion, UConn basketball. He would tell stories about all the people he had met — presidents, governors, heads of state — and marvel at his good fortune that an Irish city kid would grow up to rub elbows with such luminaries. But he would just as soon needle me about my luck with Yale women, often greeting me with his favorite question, “so how’s Blondie?” Either way, New Haven just seemed to be a different place when you were riding shotgun with Jim; it took on added life, every building, corner and alley with its own tale to tell.
Jimmy was never an objective or dispassionate source for my paper; he never claimed to be one. He saw himself as a loyal and trusted confidant to Lieberman, but over time, I came to see him differently. He reminded me of a big brother, immensely proud of Lieberman’s achievements, but fiercely protective. I often wondered what he thought of me; he never hesitated to tell me “what you Yale guys don’t understand,” but by and large, I think he had high hopes for me, that he thought I was an OK guy.
I saw Jimmy for the last time at 3 a.m. the night before Class Day outside a late-night party on Edgewood Avenue. As a graduation present, he brought me an inscribed copy of Lieberman’s first book –a book on another longtime Connecticut pol that Lieberman had begun during his senior year at Yale. It was an unbelievably thoughtful gift that I still keep today, but I think Jimmy had more fun scaring the life out of people at the party by driving up in his squad car in full uniform and growling, “Where’s Matt Obernauer? I know he goes to school here. You better bring him out!”
I hadn’t spoken to Jimmy for a few months, but I had been thinking about him lately. I was hoping he would come down for a party in New York to celebrate “The Bureau and the Mole,” a book I have been working on with David Vise, a Washington Post reporter. I was hoping that the great storyteller would enjoy another good story — about FBI agent and Soviet spy Robert Hanssen. But Jimmy died before he could ever see it.
When I first came to Yale, I planned to do a lot of things — to learn, to grow, to study some, to drink more, to make an impact on the Yale community and to come away with lifelong friendships. I never expected to meet a gruff Irishman with a taste for a good story and a good pizza pie. But the Irishman is a part of my college experience that I will always remember.
The magic of this place is so often found in the unimaginable. In the end, it is thanks to Yale that I can say today that Jimmy O’Connell was my friend.
Matthew Obernauer ’00 is a former staff reporter for the Yale Daily News.