'A force of nature' Martha O'Connor, town matriarch, dies at 82
BRATTLEBORO — Martha H. O'Connor, a woman who was described as the matriarch of Brattleboro, died on Monday at Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, N.H., at age 82 after a brief illness.
She was remembered with fondness and respect Tuesday for all that she did for her adopted hometown and her state, particularly in the fields of education — chairing not just the state Board of Education, but as chairwoman of the State College Board. She also knew a lot about the Vermont Lottery — she was chairwoman of that too.
Along with her late husband, Timothy J. O'Connor, a local lawyer who ran for governor and was Democratic speaker of the Vermont House in a non-partisan era, "Tim and Martha" were a force to be reckoned with, both together and in their own right. Her husband died 17 months ago.
"Martha was a force of nature," said Vernon Town Clerk Tim Johnson Arsenault, who worked with O'Connor for decades as a Brattleboro radio newsman.
"Martha's passing is a great loss to our community," he said.
Arsenault said his first dealings with O'Connor came in 1984 during the presidential campaign of U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who was then the Democratic frontrunner. O'Connor nabbed him a one-on-one interview with Hart — in the backseat of the O'Connor vehicle with the O'Connor daughters, Kate and Kerry, at the wheel on the way from the Keene airport to the O'Connor home on Oak Street, where they were hosting the presidential candidate.
"Their home was an unofficial campaign stop for any politician traveling through southern Vermont," said Arsenault. Their home was full of political memorabilia from Tim O'Connor's political life, and the many candidates that passed through their doors — and onto their back lawn.
Martha O'Connor was born in Brattleboro and raised in Putney. She graduated from both Brattleboro Union High School and the University of Vermont, training as an elementary school teacher. She later chaired the BUHS board and the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees, where she played a key role in making sure the state college had a strong presence in downtown Brattleboro — a move that was essential to the rebuilding of the Brooks House, which was devastated by a fire in April of 2011.
Jeb Spaulding, the Chancellor of the Vermont State Colleges System, said O'Connor was one of his "all-time favorite people."
"She was generous, very capable, and had a great sense of humor," said Spaulding. "More significantly, I can't think of anyone whose judgement and instincts I trusted more than Martha. She was an amazing mentor to so many people and will be missed terribly."
David Emery, the retired Brattleboro fire chief, said he couldn't remember a time when he didn't know the O'Connors.
"It is truly a sad, sad day for thousands of people who knew Martha," said Emery, who said O'Connor was a stalwart supporter of funding emergency services when she served on the Brattleboro Select Board.
Emery said the last time he saw her was Mother's Day, when he delivered flowers to her home. Always warm and welcoming, Emery said she invited him into the house, but reminded him to take off his shoes, and then reminded him of a time as a fire captain he and other firefighters stopped a chimney fire in their home and brought in plenty of mud.
"She never let me forget that," he laughed.
"I'm so heartbroken I hadn't seen her in a while," said Emery. "She was an amazing lady. I don't know of anything that she didn't have an opinion on."
Brattleboro businessman Greg Worden, himself a former Select Board member, said O'Connor made a huge impact on the town.
"She was just one of a kind. She was always on track about the town. And she kept Tim in line," said Worden, who is an O'Connor neighbor. "The whole family is a pretty special part of Brattleboro and it will be pretty sad not to have her around," he said.
Stephan Morse, former Speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives, called O'Connor "a true Vermonter." Morse said O'Connor "dedicated her life to not only her children and spouse, but also to Brattleboro, Windham County and the state in general. Her service to the state college system and education in general was just immense."
O'Connor was also remembered by current Vermont Governor Phil Scott and a number of former state governors.
"I'm saddened to hear of Martha's passing, and my thoughts are with her family and friends during this difficult time," Scott said. "I greatly appreciate her four decades of public service and her commitment to supporting and advocating to strengthen Vermont's education system, as well as her work for the Brattleboro community. Her service has been recognized across the state and leaves a lasting legacy."
"Martha made a great contribution to the civic life of Vermont," said former governor Madeline Kunin. "She will be greatly missed by her family and by the people of Vermont."
"Martha was one of the most extraordinary people in the state," said former governor Howard Dean. "She was an amazing leader."
Dean noted that O'Connor was involved in a number of improvements in state programs, including to the state college system and the state's lottery system.
"She was a person who could fix anything and did," he said. "She and Tim always did what was right for the state."
Dean said he owes a personal debt to the O'Connors.
"They were enormously helpful to me when I was running for governor," he said. "And Kate was my right hand for 15 years."
Former governor James Douglas knew the O'Connors for decades — and even ran against Tim O'Connor for the House speakership — and lost.
Despite that, Douglas said, "our friendship was unimpaired and lasted as long as he and Martha lived."
He said when he became governor, Martha O'Connor was already on both the State Colleges Board and the Lottery Commission, and he said he was pleased to reappoint her.
And the O'Connors were supporters of Douglas when he ran for governor, even promoting a "Democrats for Douglas" group, he recalled.
"They were great folks, The kind of public servant that exemplies the Vermont way of doing what's right," said Douglas, now a part-time political science professor at Middlebury College.
Former governor Peter Shumlin said the death of O'Connor is a huge loss for the community and everyone who called her a friend.
"They don't make them like Martha O'Connor anymore," he said. "She was the most loyal friend anyone could ask for and she cared deeply for her family, her community and the state."
Shumlin said as governor, whenever he had a tough assignment, "My first call was always to ask Martha to do it. She knew how to build consensus and bring people from all walks of life together around an idea. But she also knew when the time was right to drive it through. That wasn't always pretty ... but it sure was effective."
Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, said O'Connor had an extraordinary record of service to her community and the state.
"Her life was marked by an unwavering commitment to improving the lives of young Vermonters through education," he said. "She was persistent, fierce and fearless when it came to ensuring access to a high quality public education. Her work touched the lives of countless children. But what I remember most about Martha was her deep devotion to and love of her beloved husband, Tim, her kids and grandkids. She will be sorely missed. Paraphrasing the old Irish blessing, may God hold her gently in the palm of his hand."
The former Martha Elizabeth Hannum was born April 26, 1937, in Brattleboro, daughter of David and Rhona (Patterson) Hannum of Putney.
During her lifetime she was selected as Citizen of the Year by both the Brattleboro Area and Vermont Chambers of Commerce and most recently received the Vermont State Colleges System Board of Trustees Award for Extraordinary Contribution, which noted "Martha's passion for public education and the betterment of Vermont is reflected in a life of advocacy and service." She is set to be honored by the New England Board of Higher Education with its Vermont Excellence Award Sept. 26 in Woodstock.
Former Select Board Chairman Dick Degray said because she had a number of well-cultivated connections in Montpelier, her service to the town was invaluable.
"We had meetings with people that would have been more difficult to get had she not been making the phone calls," he said. "She was a strong advocate for the town of Brattleboro. I admired her tenacity and her love of our community.
Degray noted that O'Connor was instrumental in bringing both the Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College to the Brooks House in downtown Brattleboro.
"She knew how to get things done," he said. "She was a critical player in getting that building revitalized. I don't think it would've happened without her. "
Craig Miskovich, who founded a development company with Bob Stevens to revitalize the Brooks House, said the community owes O'Connor a debt that can never be fully repaid.
"Martha was simultaneously a believer in, and an example of, Vermont exceptionalism, and she was an indefatigable advocate for Brattleboro," he said. "Without her guidance and support the Brooks House restoration — and countless other civic projects — would not have succeeded."
Sen. Jeanette White, D-Windham, said she first met O'Connor when she moved to the area in the early 1970s.
"I was volunteering on McGovern's campaign and met a lot of old Democrats back then," said White. "She brought a lot to this county, this town, but really the entire state," she said.
She said that even while the O'Connors campaigned for former governor Douglas, Martha O'Connor wasn't afraid to speak her mind to the Legislature against a proposal by Douglas concerning the transfer of the Vermont Lottery to a Wall Street firm.
"She made it clear: she disagreed and it was not a good idea, but she wasn't nasty about it, she just let us know," White said. The proposal failed.
"I know this sounds sexist, but I think she was the woman behind the man. She was right there with Tim. She was strong, and he was the one out there in the front. I have no doubt that her handprints, fingerprints, was on everything he did," said White.
But she was so well known, she said, she was a single-name personality: "Martha."
Carolyn Pieciak, the volunteer director of St. Brigid Kitchen and Pantry at St. Michael Catholic Church, said the O'Connors were terrific supporters of the mission at St. Brigid.
"Martha will be sadly missed in our parish community, but especially by all who are associated with St. Brigid," she said.
Brattleboro's former town planner, Rod Francis, said he valued O'Connor's contribution to the Select Board. "She always cut to the chase," he said. "She was good at being direct and being clear. Like Tim, she was thoughtful and a good-natured person who always thought the best of other people."
Terry Martin, a former Vermont State Trooper, said O'Connor always offered welcome advice when asked.
"She was such a doer," he said. "Such a loving, caring person who meant so much to the town."
James Pentland, a former reporter and editor at the Reformer, said he often crossed paths with O'Connor when he was on the beat.
"As one of the big power couples in Brattleboro, and in Vermont, she and Tim were down-to-earth, friendly and generous," he said.
Survivors include a son, Kevin O'Connor of Brattleboro; two daughters, Kate O'Connor of Brattleboro and Kerry (Robert) Amidon of Vernon; three grandchildren, Daniel, David and Jacob Amidon of Vernon; and her feline companion, Valentino.
Abiding by her wishes and the precedent of her parents, the family will mark her passing simply with a private gathering, with arrangements organized by Atamaniuk Funeral Home.
The family requests no flowers. Contributions may be made to the Windham County Humane Society, P.O. Box 397, Brattleboro, VT 05302.
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