On January 28, 1970, Jim O’Connor ’67 was only 20 years old when he lost his dad. He said he was “overwhelmed” that such a thing could happen. In a highly publicized tragedy, Chicago Police Department Lieutenant James E O’Connor spared the life of an armed robber in an attempt to disarm the 20-year old gunman, who fired during the struggle and killed the 62-year old O’Connor. Lieutenant O’Connor is remembered as “a hero in every aspect, not only because he spared a young man’s life, whom he could have shot and killed, but also by refusing to let age, time of service, and proximity to retirement define him.” These words and more, including tributes from two granddaughters, can be found at Reflections for Lieutenant James E. O’Connor, Chicago Police Department, Illinois, as part of a 50-year memorial tribute conducted last year.
Lieutenant O’Connor left behind a wife, three daughters, and two sons (Jim ‘67 and Tim ’69) ages 14 – 22. Another tribute was arranged last May when friends of Lieutenant O’Connor’s daughter Kathy presented her with a wooden statue of a police canine. Writing for the Beverly Review, Kyle Garmes ’01 featured the surprise presentation of the statue on May 2, 2020, to show that Lieutenant O’Connor’s life is worth remembering because it ended in the line of duty and while attempting to spare the life of his young assailant, “because he believed in second chances.” The dog’s collar features the “‘five G’s’ he carried in his wallet, which inspired the officer every day: guidance, grace, guts, gumption, and God.” The statue also features the exact amount of time O’Connor served on the Chicago Police Department – 36 years, 11 months, and three days- and his star number, 434. The rest of Kyle’s article can be found at: Keepsake honors fallen officer | Community News | beverlyreview.net.
When Jim O’Connor was appointed to the Board of Directors of Casella Waste Systems on July 7, 2015, he was described in the news release as “the most experienced, accomplished and admired individuals in the waste management industry, [with] a proven record of success in leading and growing waste management businesses and creating shareholder value,” said John W. Casella, Chairman, and CEO of Casella. “He brings to the Casella Board extensive senior management and governance experience at leading waste management, transportation, and energy companies and has a strong track record of driving growth and shareholder value creation. We are confident that Jim’s expertise and experience, particularly his success in leading Republic Services through an era of substantial but disciplined growth, will be extremely valuable to Casella as we continue to execute on our ongoing strategic initiatives to drive revenues and enhance profitability.”
Prior to joining Republic Services, Mr. O’Connor spent close to 30 years at Waste Management, Inc., beginning in 1972 as a staff accountant, “stopping only for a four-year period during which he managed his own solid waste company in Indiana.” Jim held various senior management positions before becoming Senior Vice President of Waste Management North America.
Googling “James O’Connor Republic Services” yields a rather impressive resume. Jim is the former Chairman of the Board and CEO of Republic Services, “the second largest provider of non-hazardous solid waste collection, recycling and disposal services in the United States.” Now in his 5th year on Casella’s Board, Jim has almost 45 years of experience in the waste management industry, “including extensive leadership experience, as well as experience serving on boards of directors of publicly-traded companies in a variety of industries, including waste management, transportation and energy.” During his 13 years serving as CEO, “Mr. O’Connor led the transformation of Republic Services from a company with $1.4 billion in annual revenues into one with [almost $9 billion] in revenues, making it one of the largest waste management companies in the world. Among Mr. O’Connor’s many achievements at Republic Services was its $12.1 billion transformative acquisition of Allied Waste in December 2008. In 2001, he was the recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations (NECO) which rewards Americans who exemplify outstanding qualities in both their personal and professional lives, while continuing to preserve the richness of their particular heritage. He was named to the list of America’s Best CEOs each year, between 2005 and 2010. In 2011, Mr. O’Connor was named to the Institutional Investors’ All American Executive Team. He has also remained active in many community causes, especially those that benefit children, and has served on the board of directors of the SOS Children’s Village. Mr. O’Connor is a member of the Board of Directors of Clean Energy Fuels Corp. (Nasdaq:CLNE), the leading provider of natural gas fuel for transportation in North America, where he serves on the Compensation Committee and the Nominating and Corporate Governance Committee, and [until recently], the Canadian National Railway Company (NYSE:CNI), Canada’s largest railway with a rail network that serves Canada and the Midwestern and Southern United States, where he Chairs the Board’s Strategic Planning Committee and also serves on the Audit, Environment, Safety & Security and Finance Committees. Mr. O’Connor also serves on the board of directors of the South Florida P.G.A. of America Foundation. Mr. O’Connor holds a Bachelor of Science in Commerce (concentration in accounting and finance) from DePaul University in 1972.
How does a guy from 100th and Fairfield go from St John Fisher to Brother Rice, and then Southern Illinois University before graduating from DePaul, due to a life-changing event that led him to become one of the most admired “garbage men”?
While at SIU, one of Jim’s fraternity brothers told him state troopers were there to pick him up and escort him to a St. Louis airport, where he caught a flight to Midway. Jim wondered “what the heck was going on,” but the police officers did not know why. At Midway, Jim was greeted by Chicago police officers, who told him his dad had an accident and was taken to Roseland Hospital, but they had orders to bring him home, against Jim’s wishes to go to the hospital and perhaps say last words to each other.
When he arrived home his two uncles and aunt, all three Chicago Police, greeted him and confirmed his worst suspicions, that his dad was killed in the line of duty. It was “overwhelming” for young Jim, his older sister Mary Therese, his younger brother T.J., his younger sisters Kathy and Patricia, and his 63-year-old mom, who was “a wreck.”
O’Connor Family together to celebrate mom, Theresa’s 80th birthday
Jim remembers the 100 Club being there for his family from the beginning, covering expenses, paying off the mortgage, and paying for his and his siblings’ education. He cannot thank them enough, and the Chicago Police Department, who kept checking on the family for years, not just weeks. He said the 100 Club, a group of businessmen at the time, “provided structure, and allowed us to grieve, without worrying about major bills to pay, and they did so quietly without publicity.”
He also remembers the “pageantry” of a police funeral for a fallen brother killed in the line of duty, with police attending from cities and towns throughout the country.
Jim remembers much “confusion” during the ordeal, but he had to push himself to move forward, one step after another, including his decision to finish school after taking a semester off and then enrolling at DePaul, where he commuted every day so that he could help his 63-year-old mother while going to school. His classes in accounting and finance helped land his first job with Waste Management, so, too, did his Southside background, because a fellow south sider named Don Flynn, who went to Leo, hired Jim.
What made Jim want to go into the garbage business? Young Jim kept up with the times and he realized that the Environmental Protection Agency was growing in its power to promulgate rules and regulations for environment-friendly means of disposal. Waste Management founder Wayne Huizenga, who was born at Little Company of Mary Hospital, foresaw the EPA’s power and quickly amassed larger capitalization than anybody else and began acquiring garbage businesses from Chicago to Florida and then all over the country. Like Huizenga, Jim grew to respect shabbily dressed garbage men who “outwitted others” because they knew where every penny was spent and made in the garbage business. Also like Huizenga, Jim learned to surround himself with people smarter than himself while working twice as hard.
“We spent our lives together, often 80 hours a week on the road, without procrastinating, seizing every possible opportunity,” Jim said.
Jim became a leading expert in sizing up companies as worthy candidates for acquisitions and rollups. When Huizenga moved into Republic Services and wanted it to grow, he recruited Jim to be the CEO, and they added Chairman of the Board to his title a few years later.
Jim compared the friend-making skills he learned at St. John Fisher and Brother Rice to the ones made in the waste management business, briefly recalling a post-prom adventure that brought the Indiana State Police to the Brother Rice dean’s office. Still, he prefers to leave those details off the record.
He would much rather share lessons with young aspiring business students about surrounding yourself with smart people who work hard and have “operational discipline” like the independent garbage company owners and his coworkers at Republic Services and Waste Management. To that end, Jim recommends the book, The Waste Management Story, as an account of the growth of one business that can inspire anyone who wants to learn about starting and growing any business while creating lasting friendships similar to those made at Brother Rice. Jim still gets together at least once a year with about 30 friends with whom he ran around the country, acquiring “Ma and Pa garbage businesses.”
In addition to the prom experience, Jim remembers Brother Joyce saving him one time (details withheld) and Brother Riley putting his fist through the top of a desk on the first day of school, instilling a dose of fear that stayed with him and others. He also remembers George Sedlacek as an inspirational coach for the Flies, the frosh/soph under 5’9” basketball team. Although he only played one year of high school basketball, he credited the experience with leading him to play a lot of basketball in various parish leagues available at the time for high school and college kids.
Whether the experiences in high school were tough, great, traumatic, or hilarious, “They all contributed to who I am,” Jim said.
Jim outscored every varsity golfer in the 1966 Chicago Catholic South Section tournament, earning a 1st Place medal when he was a senior, his fourth year on the Brother Rice golf team. He is a lifetime avid golfer and supporter of golf events for charity. To whom does he credit his love of golf? His dad was a frequent player at Evergreen Golf Course because owner Babe Ahern let police officers play for free, and Jim often tagged along. They would tee off on the 10th tee that ran along Western, not far from Beverly Country Club just across 91st Street, where his fellow teammates played most of their golf.
Jim recalls his dad as a “gentle guy, who could turn it on if he had to, and whose word you can take to the bank. He lived the 5 G’s and died as he lived, considerate of others,” instinctively, in a life or death situation that killed him in the middle of an unselfish act.
His dad was an avid reader, which contributed to his humanity. He recalls his dad mentoring a kid who hung around the Roseland District Station, who later became a police officer because of Officer O’Connor, who always had time for him. That police officer, now retired, was one of the attendees at Beverly Park’s ceremony last year.
One of Jim’s regrets is that he sacrificed quality time with his three kids when he was gone on business. They are now in their 40’s, and he is gratified to see that some of what Jim learned from his dad and what they learned about their grandfather has rubbed off on his two sons and daughter, and their kids, Jim’s grandson and two granddaughters, ages 16 – 22.
Tim McGovern ’76 became friends with Jim about ten years ago in Ft. Lauderdale, where Tim leads the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Tim also made many friends at Brother Rice and continued to do so throughout his career in Chicago’s Park District and then and now in Ft. Lauderdale. Tim was instrumental in re-connecting Jim with Brother Rice in February of 2019 aboard the yacht owned by Kevin Cooney ’69, who hosted a Brother Rice reunion in Ft. Lauderdale. As soon as Jim came aboard, he announced to our President Mark Donahue ’74 and Chairman of the Board Jim Kramer ’64 that he was giving Brother Rice one of the most significant gifts we received that year.
Of his friend, Jim, Tim said, “Jim has been a class act for the 10 years I have known him in Fort Lauderdale. Brother Rice has been our bond together. He has supported our charity events, most notably the Irish Golf Classic and the Fort Lauderdale Saint Patrick’s Parade. He always speaks fondly of Brother Rice and never forgot where he came from. A total gentleman.”
After all of his business travels and accomplishments, Jim has much to sit back and reflect upon and remember with pride, but instead, he continues to move forward. “I am enjoying my retirement spending quality time with my children and my grandchildren and traveling the world with my wife, Laura,” Jim said.
Jim O’Connor was less than 4 months shy of his 21st birthday when his world became overwhelming when he lost his dad. Learning what he was like then and is now, it is easy to see how he benefited then and appreciates to this day growing up on Fairfield, as a Fisher/Rice grad, raised by Theresa and Lieutenant James O’Connor, a humanitarian hero for the ages. No wonder “he never forgot where he came from,” even though he would go on to become perhaps the most admired garbage man in the world.