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O'Connell remembered as 'one of Hudson's patriarchs'

Tom O'Connell, shown here with his late wife Janet at a memorial garden in the family's funeral home facility, died March 2. Submitted photo

For those who grieved a loss, Tom O'Connell was the solemn, respectful presence directing funeral services.

For others, he was the guy lifting spirits with a joke in social settings.

And for others still, O'Connell was the public servant who devoted his time to the Hudson Police and Fire Commission and St. Croix County Board.

John Knutson said those different aspects, rolled into one, made a community pillar of O'Connell.

"He was one of the patriarchs of Hudson," Knutson said of O'Connell, who died March 2 at the age of 91.

After working at a Twin Cities funeral home, the Hudson resident founded O'Connell Valley Funeral Home in 1985. He had previously served in the Wisconsin National Guard and worked in sales.

O'Connell married Janet Smisek in 1951, which Knutson said formed the roots of a family to which he was faithfully devoted. The couple had four children: Thomas, Kathleen, Daniel and Michael.

"I don't know of a man that loved his family and his kids and his grandkids and Janet as much as Tom O'Connell loved his family," said Knutson, a longtime friend who delivered the eulogy at O'Connell's March 7 funeral.

He said O'Connell's heart shined through especially strong while conducting funeral arrangements.

"Tom really wanted to do things well for the families so at the worst time in their life, they were being cared for and managed well," he said.

O'Connell Funeral Home office manager Cindy Schultz said O'Connell had a gift for guiding families through arrangements. Sometimes those interfamily discussions would turn contentious, but Schultz said that was when O'Connell was at his best — finding a way to break tension and return the focus to the departed.

"He just had a way with people like none other," Schultz said.

He was good at keeping things light, Knutson said.

Though a master at holding a serious, professional tone when funeral matters called for it, he could cast off that persona and lighten a room with his sharp wit. Knutson said he marveled at the "absolute juxtaposition of being the most consummate professional and the class clown within seconds of each other."

"It was like a light switch with him," he recalled. "He was one of the wittiest guys with the driest sense of humor."

Resolve in face of tragedy

But Schultz said O'Connell revealed a different characteristic after tragedy visited the family business: resolve.

On Feb. 5, 2002, Dan O'Connell and student intern James Ellison were found shot dead in the O'Connell funeral home.

The killer wasn't found, though authorities later discussed the murders with Fr. Ryan Erickson, a former St. Patrick's priest, while he was questioned about a sexual abuse case. Erickson shared alarming information about the case with police but denied murdering the men. He killed himself while authorities were investigating his possible role in the slayings.

A judge later said there was strong circumstantial evidence that Erickson — whose computer was found to contain suspicious images of young boys — likely committed the murders. A former district attorney said the theory was that Dan O'Connell confronted Erickson about the priest's suspicious involvement with children and was killed after threatening to go to police.

Schultz said the ordeal was a pivotal time for the O'Connell family and spurred Tom to become an advocate against child predators.

"He wanted something positive to come out of Dan's death," she said.

Generosity remembered

Schultz handles mail at the office, some of which includes requests for donations to community organizations. Schultz said she's not sure O'Connell ever turned one down.

"He gave to almost anyone who asked," she said.

Besides generosity, Schultz recalled O'Connell's playful spirit that she said was on full display after he acquired a long-desired Ford Model A Roadster. A beaming O'Connell later donned a chauffeur's cap and drove funeral home employees around the streets of Hudson to celebrate.

"He was like a little kid with a new toy," Schultz said.

Beyond the funeral home, O'Connell kept busy around the Hudson community in various ways. He spent 45 years on the Hudson Police and Fire Commission, serving many of those years as its commissioner.

His community engagement also included serving as a longtime St. Croix County Board member and on the Wisconsin Regional Planning committee. O'Connell was also a member of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce, United Way-St. Croix Valley, the Phipps Center for the Arts, St. Patrick's Catholic Church Parish Council and the Hudson Community Foundation.

Yet despite the busy schedule, O'Connell always made time for others, said former Hudson Police Chief Marty Jensen.

"He had time for everybody," he said, recalling how police-related discussions with O'Connell would give way to thoughtful talks about family. "He was very easy-going — super kind."

Funeral services for O'Connell were held March 7.

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is a regional/enterprise reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage includes St. Croix County government, higher education and state politics in Wisconsin. 

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