At Harvard, where he taught earth and planetary science for 42 years, his students began by calling him Professor O’Connell. To his graduate students and colleagues throughout the scientific world he was simply “Rick”, or if they knew him from his many scientific papers, “Rick O’Connell.” When he once spoke to a kindergarten class on what it took to raise cattle, the children called him “Cowboy Rick.”
Richard John O’Connell, the son of rancher Brian Daniel O’Connell and musician Hazel Richardson, was born in Helena, Montana seventy-three years ago. He spent the last twenty-four years as a resident of Cohasset, Massachusetts and died peacefully on April 2 after a valiant three-year battle with prostate cancer where he never sacrificed either his humor or his positive outlook.
At CalTech, working with his advisor Gerald J. Wasserburg, he earned a BS in Physics, an MS in geology, and a Phd in Geophysics. Following postdoctoral work at UCLA and CalTech, he joined the Harvard faculty as an Assistant Professor of Geology in 1971, was promoted to Associate Professor in 1974, and became a tenured Professor of Geophysics in 1977. He has been an Associate of Lowell House since 1983.
In addition to his own work, he is best known for the degree to which, over the course of his career, he has attracted and mentored students and graduate students and students of students who went on to become university deans, teachers, and leaders in the scientific and academic world.
Brad Hager, one of his earliest graduate students states, “Rick is notable in the extent to which he has involved students in work at the cutting edge. His style is to hand his students world-class problems to work on and to refrain from micro-managing them.” As a result he was a significant figure in building a scientific community of geophysicists. For his own and his collaborative research he was awarded some of geophysics’ highest awards – The Inge Lehmann Medal of the American Geophysical Union, the Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, and the Augustus Love Medal of the European Geosciences Union.
“Rick” was about much more than hard work. As Winston Tao, a former O’Connell graduate student said at the “RickFest,” a Symposium honoring his advisor, “Rick’s a great scientist, yes, but more than that he’s a wonderful human being: a “gentleman” in the old sense of the word, someone who appreciates both the world and the people in it. I learned a great deal from Rick: about Earth Science, of course, but also about integrity, intellectual grace, humility, and above all about how people should treat one another.”
He was known for telling a good story, enjoying a good meal, particularly after a fine glass of single malt scotch (no ice and neat, please), and for his love of sailing Whisper, the Alden yawl he and his wife Susan Playfair sailed together out of Quissett Harbor in Falmouth, MA. In addition to his wife, he leaves his son Brian O’Connell in Houston, TX; his step-daughter Lily Faulhaber in Paris, France; a sister Pat Anderson in Wolf Creek, MT; his niece Shannon Trimboli in Boise, ID; and a nephew Ian Anderson in Wolf Creek, MT. He also leaves a step-son by marriage, Tom Faulhaber and his family in San Francisco, CA. Two twin brothers, Michael and Tom O’Connell both pre-deceased him.
He was a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union, the American Association of the Advancement of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Quissett Yacht Club. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, May 2 at 4 P.M. in King’s Chapel, 58 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. Donations may be made in Richard’s name to the Pat Roche Hospice Home, 86 Turkey Hill Lane, Hingham, MA 02043 or The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 136 Irving Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.© Copyright 2015 Tanna K, All rights Reserved. Written For: Tinytown Unleashed