Ralph O’Connor, 1926-2018

Ralph Sturges O’Connor was born in Pasadena, California in 1926 and died in Houston this last Saturday. He’s standing at the far left in this picture, taken in the summer of 1968. It was the last Rice board meeting attended by Ralph’s father-in-law, George Brown, who is seated in the middle. Ralph was the baby in this room–he’d been on the board about a year at this point and he would serve more than another twenty–and for many years he was my living contact with this earlier world.

A Hopkins alum, Ralph threw himself into his role at Rice with the enthusiasm and complete commitment that characterized everything he did. Someone will make a list of all the money he gave and all the projects he supported, but that isn’t at all what I will remember about him–although I will always recall with a smile the time I raised a significant amount of money from him for a scholarship totally by accident. He was simply not capable of seeing a need and doing nothing about it. He didn’t have to be asked, he just got after it. And he dragged you into it too, but it was great because you got to come along for the ride. He was funny and gentle, full of life and fun, and very, very frank. He seemed to actually enjoy students in a sort of bemused way that I found  just charming and every single time I saw him I was glad of it.

Ralph did a lot of good things for Rice and for many other institutions in and far beyond Houston, for his alma mater Johns Hopkins, and probably only heaven knows where else. I don’t have any doubt, though, about which was the most important thing he did for us at Rice. Ralph chaired the presidential search that brought George Rupp here in 1985–the first such search after the disastrous Masterson episode of 1969–and he ran that process in such an open, respectful, and consultative fashion that it was lauded by the Carnegie Foundation as a model of its kind and not incidentally went far towards healing the bad feelings that lingered after the Masterson affair. This search also gave rise to a classic Ralph O’Connor story, a story so good that for many years I incorrectly assumed it had to be apocryphal. The committee had settled on Rupp as the clear choice but the recruitment got stuck. When Ralph discovered that George’s reluctance was partly because his daughter didn’t want to move, he asked whether she’d feel differently if she got a horse in Houston. It turned out that she would and so she did and we had our president.

Ralph S. O’Connor. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on him.

Bonus: The picture above was taken at the Martel College groundbreaking in 2000. One of Ralph’s comments at this event gives me the giggles whenever I think of it: “Rest assured, we will be able to compete in drinking beer and riding bikes and whatever else.” That’s also classic.

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20 Responses to Ralph O’Connor, 1926-2018

  1. Galloway Hudson '60 says:

    Very timely return, Melissa. I saw Ralph’s surprisingly short obit in today’s Houston Chronicle, but I was glad to see that a complete one will be published next Sunday. He and George R. Brown were indispensable in making Rice what it is today.

  2. Brad Bucher says:

    I knew Ralph for many years, all related to our common love of sculpture. What a kind, gentle human being.

  3. Lynn Gosnell says:

    Better than any obit!


  4. George Webb '88, '91 says:

    Thank you Melissa! I posted a link to this in my own hasty tribute to Ralph on the Rice sports forum: https://csnbbs.com/thread-867507-post-15802054.html. He will be missed by a great many people in a great many walks of like.

  5. George Webb '88, '91 says:

    An additional and enduring part of Ralph’s legacy is that he is the acknowledged founding father of the sport of lacrosse in Texas. he brought the 1971 Johns Hopkins v. Navy men’s game to the Astrodome, the seminal event that catalyzed for the formation of college and high school leagues in Texas anthem Southwest. Ralph continued to supported the sport (including Rice own men’s and women’s teams) as it grew in our area. In 2015 he brought the Johns Hopkins v. Marquette women’s game to Carl Lewis Stadium at the University Houston, and the Rice lacrosse field is named O’Connor Field in his honor.

    The Texas High School Lacrosse League website (https://thsll.org/about) has a detailed explanation of Ralph’s role in the 1971 game:
    “Modern lacrosse — the growth of which has been sustained to this day — was officially introduced to the Lone Star State in the year 1971. The genesis of the sports evolution in Texas can be traced to a single, dynamic event: the now legendary Johns Hopkins vs. Navy game, which was played in Houston’s Astrodome during April of ’71.

    “Johns Hopkins University, one of the traditionally strongest lacrosse programs on the East Coast, had several alumni who had been drawn to the Bayou City’s expansive boom of the sixties. A former graduate, Ralph O’Connor (Johns Hopkins ’51), enlisted renowned heart surgeons Dr. Denton Cooley, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Dr. Jack Burgland, and Bob McMurrey, Jim Harrington, Dermot Riggs and several others to initiate this event. O’Connor approached the Eastern lacrosse establishment with his proposal to spark the development of lacrosse in the Southwest.

    “Future Hall of Fame Coaches Bob Scott of Hopkins and Navy’s Willis Bilderback agreed to move their regular season NCAA game from the tidelands of Maryland to the Gulf of Coast of Texas. The Navy Midshipmen downed Johns Hopkins 9-6 in the event. It was to be the last game on the Naval Academy’s schedule before their qualification for the inaugural NCAA Men’s Division I Lacrosse Tournament later that season.”

  6. marmer01 says:

    Did he buy her a horse? Where did they keep it?

  7. Randy Schaffer says:

    what is the Masterson incident?

  8. Bill Martin says:

    The horse story is true. I was on the committee and was with Ralph and several other committee members on the day we made the final push to get George Rupp to accept the invitation. George surprised several committee members when he, the Dean of Harvard Divinity School, fixed drinks for all who wanted them and had two himself. George mentioned his younger daughter Stephanie’s reluctance to move to Texas and there was some mention of whether getting a horse might change her mind. As we were leaving, Ralph asked Stephanie to step into another room and they talked briefly. As I recall, nothing was said about this until we got back on one of the private jets we used during that search. Then someone–I’m pretty sure it was board member Josephine Abercrombie–asked Ralph, “What were you talking with Stephanie about?” He smiled and said, “I asked her what color horse she wanted.” It was brilliant. I don’t know where the horse was kept, but I do know the promise was.

    I hardly knew Ralph when the search began in 1984. By the time it ended, he was and remains one of my all-time heroes.

  9. Melissa Kean says:

    Ah, I see what you mean! I’m afraid I wasn’t at all clear–I meant I used to know the name of the horse!

    • loki_the_bubba says:

      You better remember and write it down this time. You might be the last person on earth who knows that!

  10. marmer01 says:

    From Betty Ewing’s column in the _Houston Chronicle_, Oct. 22, 1985, introducing the Rupp family:

    “…and Stephanie’s newly acquired black quarter horse mare named Cody that resides off campus.”

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