By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — As far as principal jobs go, there aren’t many better than that at St. Thomas More School.
For John O’Connor, there was only one. When the top job at Archbishop O’Hara High School came open, O’Connor surrendered the St. Thomas More job that he loved since the day he got there three years ago and returned to his alma mater.
“I love St. Thomas More,” said O’Connor, O’Hara Class of 1988. “The families there are outstanding, and I got to be with the children every day. If this job had not opened, I would have stayed at St. Thomas More.”
O’Connor became principal in July, succeeding Dr. James Redd who served for two years until his retirement from a career that spanned university administration at Northwest Missouri State and William Jewell College, and put him in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
Like Redd, who came to Archbishop O’Hara to repay a debt he owed for his Christian Brothers education in his native St. Louis, O’Connor also says his homecoming is a way of giving back.
“O’Hara helped shape who I am today, and I am not alone in that,” he said. “It’s the Catholic school system, the LaSallian tradition, and the way this school feels like home to me.”
Though O’Connor was right at home at St. Thomas More, an elementary school, his background, education and leanings are more in the direction of high school, he said.
“I got my degree in teaching middle school and high school social studies,” he said. “It is where my first love is, working with high school young men and women.”
This will not be his first tour of duty at O’Hara. He was an assistant principal at the public Raytown High School from 2002-04, when he returned to O’Hara as athletic director, serving until 2007.
He accepted an assistant principalship at Leavenworth, Kan., High School, but by that time he came to realize the special nature of Catholic education and returned to the diocesan system to lead St. Thomas More.
“I met great people and made great friends in the public schools, but it didn’t help me develop my faith,” O’Connor said.
“At a Catholic school, I can pray with my students, I can go to Mass with my students. That to me was the most important thing that brought me back, and St. Thomas More School fulfilled me in that way,” he said. “I can’t say enough good things about St. Thomas More.”
He said he expects the same kind of personal faith development at O’Hara, as he also leads the faculty there and directly participates in the faith formation of new generations of graduates, shaped in the LaSallian tradition.
“This is a great place, and families sacrifice a lot to send their kids here,” he said. “When I was here as a student, this was my second home for those four years. I was involved in every extra-curricular activity I could get into.”
The school’s LaSallian tradition of serving the poor changed his life, O’Connor said.
“That servant leadership is part of what I love about this school,” he said. “It’s not that our other Catholic high schools don’t do it. They do, and they do a great job. But in the LaSallian tradition, you are especially called to work for the poor.”
In fact, St. John Baptiste de la Salle first established his religious order to educate the poor children of Paris, he said, quoting from Archbishop O’Hara High School’s Web site: “The Lasallian School is a Christian school which shares in the teaching mission of the Catholic Church. Among its chief concerns are the religious formation, academic preparation, and cultural development of its students…The Lasallian school is characterized by the importance it gives to the education of the working class and the poor. . . De La Salle advises his teachers to pray for the ability to touch the hearts of the students. This gift unifies the Lasallian association in the creation of a disciplined structure that challenges young persons to accept the responsibilities of their vocations as students. Teachers, by their love and care, encourage students to grow in leadership and personal responsibility.”
O’Connor said that spirit continues to permeate Archbishop O’Hara High School.
“Even if a student walks through these doors for just one year, they will be touched by the love of the staff here, and the love of Christ,” he said. “Every student should have a chance of being part of that.”
The school is not without challenges. Although Archbishop O’Hara has maintained a consistently stable enrollment, public schools surrounding them are losing enrollment.
O’Connor said he is grateful for the support of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in helping families send their children to Catholic diocesan high schools, and that includes the new Honoring Family Scholarship program which provides a break in tuition at the four diocesan high schools for older students who have younger siblings at Catholic elementary schools.
“The diocese is providing our students with some financial help to make Catholic education more affordable,” O’Connor said.
He also plans to ask his fellow alumni and their families for financial help.
“I will go out and meet with alumni and families and ask them to provide those same opportunities they had to kids who want to experience it,” O’Connor said.
It is important not just for Archbishop O’Hara High School, but for the broader community as well, as O’Hara graduates are sent out into the world.
“I guarantee you that you can find story after story of how O’Hara graduates have positively impacted the lives of other people,” O’Connor said.
“We graduate some wonderful young men and women,” he said. “And that is what it’s about.”