The Jesuit mantra of service to others has stuck like glue to prominent Irish American attorney Bill O’Connor, who’s involved in so many charitable causes in New York and Ireland that it’s difficult to keep count.
“There’s no question that a Jesuit education instills a sense of giving back. It’s one of the great things about the Jesuits: There’s the classroom education, and then you also learn so much about what’s important in life,” O’Connor, a graduate of the Jesuit Fordham University and Fordham Law School, tells the Irish Voice.
On Wednesday, May 6, O’Connor will be honored by the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx at its annual Scholarship Tribute dinner at Cipriani Wall Street. The college, founded by the Sisters of Charity back in 1847, serves a broad cross-section of students, some of whom would never be able to attain a higher education if not for the scholarships that “The Mount,” as it’s known, distributes each year.
“They are doing great work,” O’Connor says. “Going back to the Sisters of Charity and Mother Angela Hughes when the college was founded, they were serving the poor, the indigent and immigrants. And if you go Mount Saint Vincent now, it doesn’t look like that story has changed.
“They’re still serving the underserved. It’s incredibly impressive.”
The affable O’Connor, 60, traces his Irish ancestry back several generations through both his parents, but speaks so authoritatively about Ireland that he might as well have been born there. His roots spring from a mixture of Clare, Kerry and Cork stock, and his people migrated here after the American Revolution and during the Famine.
There are stories of hardship laced throughout the O’Connor family tree. His paternal grandparents were both orphaned in New York at the turn of the 20th century and met at an orphanage where his grandmother was playing the piano. They were eventually married and vowed to do whatever it took to ensure a solid education for their children.
O’Connor’s father William did the family proud, earning a Ph.D. and working as a psychologist for the U.S. Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration. Bill O’Connor moved from U.S. town to another for many years thanks to his dad’s work in the military, but New York remained the family base and he returned to attend Fordham University and Fordham Law School.
Becoming a lawyer was a career goal from the age of 11, when he read a book about Sir Thomas More, the patron saint of attorneys who above all was known for his conscience.
O’Connor’s first legal job was an internship with the American Lung Association, helping to write public health regulations back in the days when smoking practically anywhere was the norm. One of the local bills he worked on in Westchester banned smoking in places like grocery stores and food preparation areas.
“When you think back it’s hard to believe how smoking was so prevalent. It was definitely an interesting job,” O’Connor recalls.
Eventually he changed gears and created a thriving practice that’s now centered on commercial real estate and capital market transactions. O’Connor is a partner and co-chair of the Real Estate Capital Markets Group in the New York office of Thompson & Knight LLP, an international law firm that specializes in a multitude of practice areas.
In addition to O’Connor’s work in New York – one of the projects his group arranged financing for is the $880 million expansion of the Museum of Modern Art on the West Side – he also deals with firms handling distressed assets in Ireland, particularly those that are part of the Irish government agency NAMA.
A love of the law is part of the O’Connor family business. He met his wife Patty at Fordham Law School; after they married and had their second son (there are three in total, William, Tommy and Rory), Patty put her taxation practice to one side to raise their kids.
Now that the boys are grown, Patty has delved into charity work. She’s a member of the Westchester County Women's Advisory Board, and she also devotes her time, pro bono, to helping lower income earners file tax returns.
When O’Connor isn’t organizing multi-million dollar real estate transactions, he’s figuring out new ways to carry out the Jesuit legacy of service and charity that’s so ingrained.
His father was a deputy director of the Peace Corps who worked with the founder, Sergeant Shriver. Young Bill spent lots of time with people who served in the Peace Corps in Latin America, and their work made an impact.
“Our family has always been engaged with the notion of public service and just helping others whenever possible,” O’Connor says.
His own list of charitable and cultural endeavors has a particular Irish tinge. O’Connor, an accomplished painter, is the president of the New York-based Abbey Theatre Foundation, which supports the work of the famed theater in Dublin. He is also a member of the advisory board for the Irish Fighting 69th Regiment, the Sixty-Ninth Regiment Historical Trust, and a member of the U.S. board of the Galway University Foundation.
“My involvement with Galway has been fun and meaningful and I’ve met some great people,” says O’Connor, who notes that the foundation is currently hoping to expand student exchange opportunities between Galway and U.S. universities.
The New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade has always held special significance for O’Connor. In 2012 he was one of the founding members of the NYC St. Patrick’s Day Foundation, which raises money and awareness for the parade and its related activities. O’Connor’s firm serves as the foundation’s pro bono counsel.
“We wanted to put together a group of people to help maintain the parade and support it financially. It’s one of the gems of New York. Our foundation has already raised more money for the parade than it was able to raise on its own in the previous 25 years,” O’Connor says.
Fordham causes are also important to O’Connor, who endows the annual William M. O’Connor Scholarship Award at Fordham Law School for a student judged to have excelled in writing for the school’s International Law Journal.
An annual member of the Irish Voice Irish Legal 100, O’Connor couldn’t be more thrilled with the upcoming recognition from the College of Mount Saint Vincent, located on a 70-acre campus in Riverdale with picturesque views of the Hudson River.
The scholarship program offered by the college is what impressed Bill and Patty O’Connor the most. A number of students with serious academic potential but limited financial means are selected each year for full scholarships that include tuition, room and board and other expenses. Many of the recipients are from the greater New York area and would otherwise not have the opportunity to pursue higher education, O’Connor says.
“Some of the students are poor but incredibly talented, and they’ve found a home at The Mount,” says O’Connor.
“I’ve met and spoken to several students, and where they’re going in their lives is amazing. One scholarship recipient is doing intense work in the field of pharmacological research, to the point where I’m sure we’ll be reading about him one day.
“And what’s especially great about the dinner is that all the proceeds raised will go directly to the scholarship fund, and not to administrative costs which often happens.”
Mount Saint Vincent President Dr. Charles L. Flynn, Jr. says the college is keen to recognize O’Connor’s achievements on all levels.
O’Connor “is a devoted and extraordinary steward of many civic and charitable organizations that share a history and purpose with the college. In his work on behalf of the National University of Ireland at Galway, he shares this college’s abiding commitment to expanding the benefits of higher education to all determined students. His service to New York’s Irish Americans enriches a community that been closely tied to the college since its inception.”
For information on tickets to the May 6 dinner, which will also honor Cheryl C. Shea, from the Office of the NYPD Deputy Commissioner-Training, visit mountsaintvincent/edu/scholarshipdinner.