Nephew honors first college graduate in family with scholarship

William and Mary Lee O'Connell
William and Mary Lee O'Connell


William O’Connell has been blessed with the luck of the Irish, which, in his case, is his Irish family. 

            The son of Matthew and Ruth Black O’Connell, his road to college began with a high school scholarship and a hefty push from his older sister, Pat, and his mother. Now Mike Carlson, Pat’s son and O’Connell’s nephew, and his wife, Susan, have honored all the O’Connells and their dedication to education by creating a scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

            The Carlsons made a $5,000 gift, which was matched by $5,000 from the GE Foundation, to establish The O’Connell Family Scholarship. The scholarship will give first preference to students who are residents of McKean, Cameron or Elk counties in Pennsylvania and Cattaraugus, Wyoming or Chautauqua counties in New York.

            “I wanted to recognize the O’Connell family, including my grandparents, mother and several uncles, but particularly my Uncle Bill,” said Carlson, who is a member of the university’s advisory board. “Bill was the first family member to ever attend college. He was a role model for us growing up and influenced many, both family and non-family.”

            O’Connell grew up in Riderville, a swampy area with nine homes between what is now Bradford Regional Airport and State Game Lands 62.

            Most folks in Riderville had a dad who worked on an oil lease and lived in a little house that had been built by one of the oil companies. The second youngest of eight children, O’Connell grew up in a 3-bedroom house that when he was very young didn’t have indoor plumbing.

            Everyone knew everyone in the little burg, and his aunt and uncle ran a post office and small general store in nearby Mount Alton, where O’Connell was an altar boy at St. Joseph’s Church.

            One day when he was in junior high, the parish priest told him he could attend St. Bernard High School in Bradford. O’Connell accepted the gift without really knowing where it came from, but he believes the parish paid his tuition.

            At St. Bernard, he became a football and basketball star and set city records, but after graduation, he had no plans of college.

            His sister, Pat, stepped in. She wanted Bill to come live with her and her husband, Bob Carlson, and their three small children, Mike, J.P. and Cathleen.

            He moved into Bradford to live with the Carlsons and went out to look for a job. He was offered two: one in a bank and one in a factory making electrical components. He, of course, wanted to take the bank job with its dress shirts and professional demeanor. No, his sister said, if you take that job, you will never leave. Take the factory job – besides you’re going to school.

            “I am?” he thought. He was. Pat had friends who were teachers who had gone to Clarion State Teachers College (now Clarion University) and who knew Waldo Tippin, the athletic director and football coach for whom Clarion’s Tippin gymnasium is named. Tippin was interested in having Bill play football for him.

            That Christmas, Pat and Bob told Bill he had been enrolled in Clarion. They dropped him off in January, and he reported for basketball practice the next day. He never did end up playing football for Tippin, but he met his wife, Mary Lee, and they married Bill’s senior year. He graduated in January 1960 with a social studies certification.

            O’Connell knows sacrifices were made to get him through school (his mother picked ground pine and sold it to give him a little spending money, for instance), but the details were sketchy.

            His first full-time job was in the Limestone, N.Y., school district where he taught math, English and social studies, coached baseball, basketball, football and track and drove the team bus to games. When the principal/superintendent left, the school board asked him to take over. He was 26.

            O’Connell went on to be an administrator who would affect hundreds of teachers through his 28-year career as an administrator, being one of the superintendents to set up the Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) in Cattaraugus County, acting as a principal in Pioneer Central Schools and founding the middle school there, and then teaching in and administering the teacher education program at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y.

            During this time, he also served on a team of New York State Department of Education personnel evaluating “Schools of Distinction” throughout the state.

            His nephew Mike Carlson said, “It is appropriate to use a scholarship to recognize the family name, but as important to recognize an educator.” The O’Connells now live in Delevan, N.Y.

            For information on contributing to the O’Connell Scholarship or starting a scholarship at Pitt-Bradford, contact Jill Ballard, executive director of institutional advancement at (814)362-5091 or