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.