Requiem for a Friend: Michael O'Connell Among the Herons

moc2He brought a Lennonesque cheekiness to what he did -- even professionally -- that sometimes landed him in hot water.

When Ronald Reagan was the sitting president, and Michael O'Connell was a reporter for the TV Mailbag, he described an upcoming presidential speaking engagement featuring the "former host of Death Valley Days."

As a copywriter at McMaster-Carr Industrial Supply Company, where I met him, he described a kingless caster as "the coup d'etat of caster service." And of the lightly oiled casters, Mike wrote, "Like summertime in Athens, these casters lend a touch of grease ...." This was at a place where the phrase "corrosion-resistant" was considered creative and far out.

Mike was an all-encompassing, all-embracing event -- with more close friends than most people could conceive of. He worked at friendships, though he certainly wouldn't call it work. He simply kept in touch and he cared, and went out of his way to drop a note, make a call, remember a birthday.

Many of us, as we get older, begin to lose touch with old buddies. Not Mike. His network was vibrant, electrified, and always thrumming. Music and poetry fueled him. And he was effortlessly at the cutting edge of what was important to be listening to, not out of any kind of trend-tapping but out of innate recognition of what was fine and right and good. He was listening to Erik Satie and Coltrane in college while I was listening to Elton John.

As a vice-president of the Chicago Board of Trade for a number of years, he traveled the world, entertaining business and social gatherings with his mandolin, which he carried around on planes like a briefcase. During one night at the Lanesborough in London, a $750 per night hotel, he decried not having any XO cognac in the mini bar. He let me listen in on a hand-held tape recorder as he called to his personally assigned valet, "How am I supposed to relax?" And then he laughed. An impish, "we're-in-on-the-same-joke" laugh.

He played on the rooftops of Milan, in the gardens and ryokans of Kyoto, Japan, the Magic Bar in Boca Raton, the green hills of Ireland more than once, and the plazas of Italy, where he met a child of a business contact, who was a physically challenged boy, and bought him his own mandolin because he seemed so fascinated by Mike's instrument. These things he mentioned only in passing. Of course he'd buy a mandolin for a stranger.

And could Mike play. Here he is, the guy on the right, during a Django Reinhardt appreciation phase a few years back:

I went with him on many of his trips through taped correspondence that we kept up since 1991.

For a short time, we were both vice presidents and benefactors of lavish, wine-soaked meals of prime steaks and pasta, courtesy of the Chicago Board of Trade. "You're a journalist," he'd say. "I'm meeting with a journalist." And that was that. Just as easily, and as memorably, we once got salami sandwiches at a Loop 7-11 store and sat on the curb to eat them with every bit as much joy and gusto.

When more financially challenging times came and the Hugo Boss suits were put away for good, Mike adapted and flourished. He appreciated the  herons of Beaver Pipe Dam Pond, and the "full summer green" outside his back deck in June, where we'd sit and play British Invasion songs, splitting a rice dish with chicken wings or a hot dog. He loved being in Wayne and became a kind of ambassador of the place.

Nobody took care of his animals better. He'd make chowder for them out of leftovers, and lavish praise on them whenever they appeared nearby, speaking to them like they were his true love, because they were: even a rat with the prosaic name Al Giacabazzi.

For 17 years, he hosted a Christmas party at the old Town Hall, where myriad friends would gather to play and sing Christmas songs. I dressed as Santa Claus the first year in 1997, and it became a tradition that evolved somewhere South of a Capra movie. He did it initially so that his 90-year-old neighbor Ralph Cluts could join him on guitar. And when Mr. Cluts died, he did it in his honor.

We lost Mike on a cold Monday, December 11, 2017.

So much more to say -- so much to hold fast to -- so much to appreciate, and to love.

Michael O'Connell is missed today, and will be for many, many years.

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