For more than 40 years, math teacher Jim O’Connor built up a reputation as a stern disciplinarian. The Vietnam veteran has never had kids or married, and he appeared to be quite a serious character. However, in 2013 a secret side of O’Connor’s character emerged that would change his students’ opinion of him forever.
It seems that discipline has been a running theme throughout O’Connor’s life. As a young man, he spent a few years in the military, serving in the navy. During this time, he was posted aboard the famous U.S.S. Enterprise as an electrician. And this role took him off to the Vietnam War.
When O’Connor’s time in the navy came to an end, he continued working as an electrician, gaining employment with the New York Port Authority. During this time, the Vietnam veteran helped to service the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. It seems, though, that O’Connor was eager to broaden his horizons.
With that in mind, O’Connor enrolled in night classes. And showing dogged determination, the electrician spent a number of years working towards an engineering degree. After gaining the qualification, O’Connor decided to change his life, moving across the country to California where he secured a job with Hughes Aircraft.
In his new state, O’Connor decided branch out further, working with children as a volunteer sports coach. Clearly, in these experiences, the electrician-turned-engineer found yet another calling. As a result, he retrained as a math teacher and embarked on a 38-year career in education.
Over that time, O’Connor has worked in a couple of schools, including St. Francis High School, a Catholic prep establishment in La Cañada, California. There he teaches calculus and algebra. What’s more, he keeps his students in line with a distinct style of discipline and refuses to treat his pupils like babies.
With that in mind, O’Connor has a rather stern reputation among his students. If asked to describe their math teacher, they would surely mention his tall, imposing stature, his neat, grey crew-cut, or his observant eyes. However, it was O’Connor’s talent for somehow keeping his classes of 30 young boys in check that was perhaps the most noteworthy.
In fact, when quizzed about O’Connor for a 2013 article in the Los Angeles Times one student was all too willing to elaborate on the former’s strict teaching style. Michael Tinglof was taught by O’Connor during his freshman year at St. Francis High School. “If you look at the clock, you’re on his bad list for the rest of the class,” he revealed.
Nonetheless, O’Connor does have a sense of humor. Whenever he makes a joke, though, his deadpan delivery means that it often goes over his students’ heads. As a result, one of O’Connor’s pupils, Pat McGoldrick, told the Los Angeles Times, “Everybody thinks he’s being really mean.”
Explaining one of O’Connor’s quips, McGoldrick added, “Like in our class, he’ll put a problem up on the board and then someone will say, ‘Oh, can you do it this way?’ And then he’ll respond, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just do this and I’ll just change that and I’ll do all this extra work and I’ll get the same answer. It’s totally worth it.’”
Moreover, O’Connor’s life outside of school did nothing to soften the perception his students had of him. The math teacher never married or had children of his own. Instead, he has seemingly dedicated most of his life to his students, giving them what he believed was the best education he could with his strict approach to discipline.
As a result, O’Connor was unflinching when his stern demeanor was put to him. In fact, he seemed proud of what he’d achieved over his teaching career. According to him, while it would be nice if learning was fun, it’s actually a serious endeavour – and O’Connor has decided to treat it as such.
During an interview with Today in 2014, O’Connor stated that being strict had been beneficial both to him and his students over the years. “If you have a class full of 32 teenage boys, you better have some discipline,” he explained. “If you don’t have control of the class, you don’t have a learning environment.”
Nevertheless, it appears that O’Connor had been hiding a softer side from his students. That’s because in 2013 it emerged that the stern math teacher had an adorable pastime outside of school. And no one would have ever known just how sweet O’Connor really was if it hadn’t been for a chance set of circumstances.
In 2013 O’Connor’s students Tinglof and McGoldrick headed up a student blood drive at St. Francis High School. Their job was to sign up donors to the campaign. So, as part of their research, the two boys visited Children’s Hospital Los Angeles to see how donated blood helped those in need.
When Tinglof and McGoldrick arrived at the hospital, though, things took a strange turn. When people found out the name of the school the pupils attended, they were delighted. The boys were suddenly greeted with open arms. And it was all because of one man: their strict math teacher O’Connor.
In 2014 Tinglof and McGoldrick recalled in an interview with CBS News that people had stopped them in the hospital to say, “Oh, you must know Jim O’Connor. Isn’t he wonderful?” Describing his reaction to such comments, McGoldrick added, “It was disbelief, really… It was almost, like, kind of finding this alter ego that he has.”
And when the boys entered the hospital’s blood donor center, they realized why their math teacher was so revered. It turned out that O’Connor had given more blood to the institution than anyone else. Indeed, that fact was confirmed by a plaque of donors, which featured O’Connor’s name in pride of place at the very top.
In fact, O’Connor had first donated blood at the hospital way back in 1989 after being asked to by a nurse friend. And he soon discovered he was Type O Negative. That blood type is universal, meaning it can be given to patients of all blood groups. As a result, it can be transfused to newborn babies or during emergencies when there’s no time for blood profiling.
With that in mind, O’Connor kept on donating and, as of 2014, he’d contributed in excess of 70 gallons of blood to the drive as well as countless platelets. This was clearly an impressive feat. However, it wasn’t the only surprising fact that Tinglof and McGoldrick discovered about their disciplinarian math teacher while visiting the hospital.
During O’Connor’s regular trips to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, he started to understand where his donations were going. He saw tiny babies who needed major operations, for example, and toddlers in the grips of chemotherapy. Then there were their parents whose lives had been torn apart by the realities of having a sick child.
Moreover, O’Connor also saw volunteers who gave up their time to help those sick children and their families. As a result, the teacher decided it was something that he’d like to get involved with as well. So despite some initial reservations, O’Connor put himself forward to see if there was some way he could take part.
And before O’Connor knew it, he’d been recruited as a so-called “TLC” volunteer, cuddling sick babies and walking around the hospital with them. At first, the math teacher was nervous, especially when it came to dealing with infants attached to medical apparatus, or those recovering from serious operations.
Nonetheless, O’Connor soon settled into his new role as an unlikely baby cuddler. And it turned out that he was a natural. In an interview with Today Sherry Nolan, a nurse at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, said of O’Connor, “He holds them, feeds them, walks around with them, gets to know them and he can always coax a smile out of them.”
TLC volunteers such as O’Connor are important to the hospital as they provide sick babies with comfort when their parents have to work or attend to other children back at home. Alternatively, infants may not have a mom or dad who around due to suspicions of abuse. Regardless of the child’s background, though, O’Connor is there for them all.
So, over the past 20 years O’Connor has become one of the hospital’s most experienced TLC volunteers. And it certainly appears that infants feel safe in his arms. “They just stare at him adoringly and he can really just get the crabbiest baby to calm down. It’s amazing,” Nolan revealed. “He’s just a natural-born cuddler.”
O’Connor is so reliable, in fact, that nurses often turn to him when times are tough. He’s even been called upon to be with dying babies when their parents have been too devastated to do so. No matter what the circumstances, O’Connor simply turns up and cares for the infants with the utmost love and respect.
“No matter how sick they are, no matter how devastated, he’s just so caring,” Jeri Fonacier, a nurse at the hospital, told the Los Angeles Times. “He brings such a warmth and peace.” Fonacier’s colleague Rebecca Day added, “We see him and we say, ‘Oh Jim, oh thank God you’re here,’”
While O’Connor has no children of his own, he has many nephews and nieces and has always harbored a soft spot for babies. Revealing this unexpected side to his character, O’Connor told Today, “They’re beautiful; they’re just dependent on people. They can do no wrong.”
And just as O’Connor loves babies, it seems that they’re equally as fond of him. Consequently, Nolan has wondered what gives the teacher his “special touch.” The nurse has speculated that his low voice is somehow soothing to the sick infants he sees. However, modest O’Connor denies there’s anything magic in his method.
According to O’Connor, babies are comfortable when he’s around simply as they’re being held safe in someone’s arms. Some of the babies he sees don’t enjoy as many cuddles as others because of various family circumstances. In fact, there are some infants who receive no visitors at all.
And it’s these children whom O’Connor finds himself gravitating towards the most. The math teacher told Today, “The kids who have nobody, those are the ones who obviously need volunteers a lot.” Moreover, while some infants may have had a difficult start in life, their needs are the same as any other baby. “They just want to be held by somebody,” O’Connor explained.
With that in mind, O’Connor has visited the hospital three times a week for two decades in order to carry out his TLC volunteering duties. And as nurse Erin Schmidt told Today, “Jim is invaluable to us.” Nolan added, “I can’t imagine working without him… We really do depend on him.”
But despite the nurses’ praise, O’Connor didn’t see his baby-cuddling activities as anything out of the ordinary. “I just like them and relate to them somehow,” he told CBS News. “I don’t want to see them alone… You can’t do that.” So it seems that O’Connor isn’t as stern as his teaching methods might suggest.
Nonetheless, O’Connor was eager to maintain his tough-guy demeanor. So, seemingly in an attempt to keep up appearances, he added, “I know, but don’t tell my students.” But thanks to Tinglof and McGoldrick’s visit Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, O’Connor’s secret was finally out.
As a result of what they discovered at the hospital, the boys’ opinions on O’Connor completely changed. “I’ve always respected him, but now it’s to an even different degree – really to the point where I try to emulate him,” McGoldrick told CBS News. “He’s the epitome of a man of service.”
In a separate interview with the Los Angeles Times McGoldrick added, “I mean, if you really think about it, his whole life is service… Half the week he’s teaching, giving knowledge to his students, and the other half, he’s donating blood and giving his time to children who need it most. It’s pretty amazing.”
Instead of retiring, O’Connor opted to teach at St. Francis part-time, and he spends much of the remainder of his hours at the hospital. Nevertheless, the math teacher had managed to keep his life outside of school secret for decades. After Tinglof and McGoldrick’s trip to the hospital, of course, the word was finally out.
Consequently, after years of cuddling babies without any great fanfare, O’Connor found his story featured in the national media. And as a result of the attention the teacher suddenly received, a couple of kids at school picked up the courage to say hello to him. So while O’Connor often scared his students, he now hopes he’ll inspire them as well.
In particular, O’Connor would like his story to encourage others to give their time to worthy causes. “If they’ve gotten something out of it, that’s the main thing,” the teacher told Today. “If there are more people wanting to donate blood, wanting to volunteer, then that’s great.”