Times Past

Dan Krieger: Poly professor made war on ignorance

As time passes, we all come to recognize the loss of rare and much valued friends. Eugene O’Connor was one of these.

Another school year has opened amid both an economic crisis and what I will call for lack of better words a “failure of nerve” for our system of public education.

“No child left behind” remains an empty promise of long-gone political regimes, but its legacy of repetitive testing with questionable results is still with us.

Most of us agree that no amount of testing can ever replace an inspirational teacher, but a major California newspaper has taken to publishing the names and schools of teachers whose students in any given year fall below the standard test scores.

Gene had a lot of words for this, none of which are printable in a column read by children.

Gene was an inspirational teacher in every way. Part of his inspiration was to give enlightenment through a rigorous denunciation of ignorance.

Gene came to Cal Poly’s School of Business in 1964. By the time I got to know him in 1971, he was already recognized as one of our campus’s truly outstanding teachers.

San Luis Obispo attorney Richard Carsel recalls how Gene taught him to teach when he was first teaching business law.

“He spent hours and hours with me teaching how to deal with unruly and insolent students and how to defend the grades that I had assigned when students (and sometimes in those days) their parents protested. He also taught me how to admit that I couldn’t answer a question by saying ‘I have absolutely no idea what the answer is. But I will find out and let you know at the next class.’ ”

Once Richard was visiting his daughter in Walnut Creek. It was Christmas Eve, and he realized he needed to buy his wife a present.

He went into “a prominent jewelry store and was waited on by the manager of the store” who said that he had been a marketing major at Cal Poly.

“I asked him if he had ever taken any classes from Gene O’Connor He looked me straight in the eye, took a deep breath and said to me, ‘If it hadn’t been for Mr. O’Connor, I wouldn’t own this store.’ ”

Many of Gene’s former students and people he mentored have gone on to do wonderful things.

R. “Jim” Considine, now chairman of Los Angeles-based First Western, served as chairman of the board of trustees for the California State University system during the traumatic budget cuts of the 1990s. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate by Cal Poly.

Jim holds Gene’s mentoring and role modeling close to his heart as a source of strength.

Much of Gene’s outlook was shaped by the immigrant Irish Catholic neighborhood where he grew up in southwestern Illinois. He had his pet hates, and for the most part they were good dislikes to have. He especially detested bullying.

When he heard that one of the first black families to enter Old Mission School was encountering prejudicial behavior on the playground, Gene dropped everything and rushed to the principal’s office.

He took the concept of academic self-governance that we use at Cal Poly seriously. He understood that some faculty could be bullies and abuse the process.

You would always find Gene involved in personnel grievance procedures and advising faculty members who had problems with some of their colleagues long after he retired.

I’m convinced that the world is a far, far better place because of knowledgeable and passionate teachers like Gene O’Connor.

Their presence in our education exceeds the power of any possible search engine algorithm or repetitive testing protocol.

Gene, as the poet Leigh Hunt wrote of Abou Ben Adhem, “may (your) tribe increase!”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.