Influential Harford Community College leader O'Connell dies

Considering the influence he had on Harford County's only institution of higher learning, Alfred C. O'Connell's death last month drew little notice in a community where he lived for many years and left a huge imprint, according to a longtime colleague and friend.

Dr. O'Connell, who was HCC's first president and later returned to head the college a second time amid a leadership crisis in the late 1970s, died in Nov. 11 in North Carolina, where he had been living near family members, according to John Haggerty, of Bel Air, a member of the college's board of trustees. Dr. O'Connell was 83.

"Dr. O'Connell was one of the most important people in education in our county," Haggerty said. "His footprint is all over the campus. He's still remembered and for good reason."

Haggerty worked in the college's administration for 23 years and was HCC's director of athletics during Dr. O'Connell's second stint as the college's president. Haggerty said they both retired in 1989 and though Dr. O'Connell moved to Arizona, they kept in touch.

Haggerty said he thought a lot of Dr. O'Connell and believes HCC would not have become the strong institution it has without the foundation Dr. O'Connell laid.

Haggerty said he had learned of Dr. O'Connell's death shortly after it occurred but wrongly assumed the college would make an announcement of some sort. When he attended a recent function where other people associated with the college were, Haggerty said, most were surprised when he told them Dr. O'Connell had died.

"We are still following strategic plans Dr. O'Connell developed," Haggerty said, adding that Dr. O'Connell was a pioneer in the community college movement in Maryland and mentored a number of future college leaders, including recent HCC president James LaCalle and current Cecil College president W. Stephen Pannill, who both worked under Dr. O'Connell at HCC.

Dr. O'Connell's first term as Harford Community College president started before the college was even named as such. He led HCC for a total of 15 years.

Originally from Boston, Dr. O'Connell started at what was then called Harford Junior College in the spring of 1964. He had previously worked at a community college in upstate New York. A graduate of the University of Hartford, he earned a master's degree from Trinity College and a doctorate from Columbia University.

At the time Dr. O'Connell arrived in Harford County, the junior college, which was started as an extension of the county public school system in 1957, held classes in a wing of Bel Air High School and was under the direction of the school superintendent. In July 1964, Dr. O'Connell led the college to its permanent campus on a former horse farm at Route 22 and Thomas Run Road east of Bel Air. Haggerty, who joined the college staff in 1966, said Dr. O'Connell developed the master plan for most of the buildings on the campus.

Dr. O'Connell left Harford in 1967 to help establish a new community college in Batavia, N.Y., Genesee Community College. He returned to Maryland to become executive director of the State Board for Community Colleges in 1971. He later became president of Garrett Community College in 1975.

He rejoined Harford Community College in July 1977, after the HCC Board of Trustees, convinced him to return after the previous president left under fire.

"Dr. O'Connell came back at a critical time, and he made a difference," Haggerty said. "He really left the college in great shape and prepared for the future."

Newspaper articles when he retired discussed how much Harford Community College changed under Dr. O'Connell's leadership, from a wing in a high school with 125 students to a large campus with 15,000 students. When he left, all but one of the college's 14 buildings had been built in his two terms as president. Some of the programs added to HCC while Dr. O'Connell was president included occupational courses in nursing, radio, speech and communication.

Dr. O'Connell left his Arizona home and visited the college in July 1991 to accept the title of Harford Community College President Emeritus. In the ceremony, according to an Aegis article, he accepted a plaque from the HCC Board of Trustees honoring him for his contributions to the college. He also received the title of President Emeritus from the current HCC board just a few years ago, Haggerty said.

During his career in Harford County, Dr. O'Connell was met President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush during a Washington, D.C. ,conference in May 1989 for retiring college presidents.

Dr. O'Connell's wife died days before he did, according to a news release from Genesse Community College. They were the parents of two children.

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