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Mayor's Father, Jerome O'Connor, Dies at 87

September 14, 1992|NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jerome O'Connor, father of San Diego Mayor Maureen O'Connor and a feisty ex-boxer nicknamed "Kid Jerome," died early Sunday. He was 87.

O'Connor, a resident of Mission Hills for 40 years, moved to San Diego with his parents from Colorado when he was 6 months old. At age 14, he became the youngest professional boxer in San Diego history, and for decades, friends say, he guided his family and his businesses with the same fighting spirit he had showed in the ring.

"He was a winner in everything he did: as a husband, a father, a grandfather, a boxer, a swimming coach, a campaign manager," Mayor O'Connor said. "He did it all in a very gentle fashion; that was the kind of man he was."

With 13 children, O'Connor and his wife, Frances, lived a "no-frills life," the mayor recalled in an earlier interview. The family was never hungry, but at times they longed for more food. One Thanksgiving when they couldn't afford a turkey, one of the O'Connor boys molded hamburger meat into the traditional bird.

Indeed, O'Connor told his children that he wouldn't heat the house because he feared it would spark a fire. But some of his children believed that their father was simply trying to scrimp so he could better afford other essentials for the family.

"You learned how to sleep with a blanket between your knees so no one could steal it from you," Mayor O'Connor once recalled.

During the 1940s, O'Connor owned a downtown night spot, the Cobra Club, that featured big-band music. Later, he owned and ran liquor stores downtown and in Point Loma.

When the O'Connor family was featured on the cover of Parade magazine in 1956, Frances O'Connor told the reporter that she and her husband "may not be rich in things like cars and clothes . . . but we are rich in children."

Jerome O'Connor heartily agreed. And it was a wealth he was not prepared to lose. Though O'Connor did not swim, he taught all his children to be strong swimmers after daughter Maureen almost drowned during an outing at the beach.

At their father's urging, the seven O'Connor sisters became proficient precision swimmers, winning more than 1,000 individual and team medals and trophies. In the fall of 1964, O'Connor coached what had become known as the "Swimming O'Connor Sisters."

Whatever the event, O'Connor was prepared to coach his offspring. When Maureen first joined the City Council during the 1970s, her father attended every meeting almost religiously. Neat and dapper, he sat attentively through sessions that sometimes dragged on and on.

When then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock was convicted of perjury and conspiracy in 1985, Jerome O'Connor was outside the courtroom. Realizing that Hedgecock would be removed from office, he immediately predicted to reporters that his daughter would run for mayor and win.

Asked why she would win, he replied, "Because she's the best."

O'Connor also made a name for himself among judges and attorneys as a court watcher. His devotion to the law had become evident to his children at a young age. Whenever any of them broke O'Connor's rules, he would hold a mock trial.

"If someone was to come in late, my dad would say that he is guilty," Mayor O'Connor recalled. After the family objected to his pronouncement, "he'd bring us together and we would have court."

Nonetheless, O'Connor insisted that \o7 he \f7 had veto power. In actual courtrooms, however, he was regarded as fair and impartial.

"He would have been one helluva lawyer," said Bart Sheela, an attorney who has seen O'Connor in courtrooms since the 1950s.

In fact, Sheela was so impressed with O'Connor that he would sometimes ask him his views on how the jury reacted to a witness.

"He was very astute; he related to people so well," Sheela said. "He could tell the way people were reacting much better than I could, and I've been doing this work 42 years."

A court watcher for more than two decades, O'Connor had become such a fixture at the courthouse that bailiffs always tried to save him a seat if the trial looked like it would draw a big crowd. O'Connor favored criminal cases, such as the Latham trial during the '50s, when two women were accused of kidnaping and burying alive a third woman.

Even with this occasionally time-consuming hobby, O'Connor was also a sports enthusiast. At age 69, he took up jogging.

In recent years, however, O'Connor has had to curtail many of his activities, friends say.

He died of natural causes on Sunday at Sharp Cabrillo Hospital. He is survived by his wife, Frances, whom he married in 1938, and his children: Partrick, Michael, Sharon, Dianne, Colleen, Mavourneen, Maureen, Sheila, Timothy, Karen, Thomas and Shawn. He also has 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at St. Vincent's Catholic Church, 4077 Ibis St. in Mission Hills. The services--open to the public--will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

The family suggests that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Salvation Army.

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