C. Donald O’Connor. A Life Well Lived

C. Donald O’Connor (front) with (left) Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Endler, U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin, and Acting U.S. Attorney Roger Williams.

During this season of thanksgiving and celebration, it is well to reflect upon the life of C. Donald O’Connor – a man who triumphed in spite of enormous odds, a man who lived his life with honor and dignity. On September 28, 2007, Don succumbed to complications of post-polio syndrome.

Born in Elmira, NY, on July 1, 1929, Don graduated from Baldwin-Wallace College in 1950, with his wife Kay by his side. The couple then moved to Ithaca, NY where Don commenced the study of law at Cornell University. After graduation, he briefly practiced law in the central NY community of Caroline Corners. In 1954, the couple (with children Penelope and Edward in tow), moved to Alaska – Don had been appointed as Assistant U.S. Attorney for Division I District of Alaska. Soon, the couple was blessed with the arrival of their third child, William.

Don contracted polio at the age of 26, just one year after arriving in Alaska. He was transferred to the Northwest Respirator Center in Seattle, where he remained in an iron lung for several months. Eventually able to be weaned from the iron lung, Don was left with paralysis of both legs and his right arm. But, never daunted, Don mastered the use of his left arm to write, type, shave, work and help care for his family. He remained in Alaska as an Assistant U.S. attorney, preparing Alaska for its transition from territory to statehood. In 1960, Don accepted a position as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the Western District of New York. He remained in that position, and that of interim U.S. Attorney, until his retirement in 1987.

But, what set this man apart from the masses was his refusal to allow polio to interfere with his personal and professional goals. Engaged for much of his career in an era that made little or no accommodation for wheelchair-bound individuals, Don developed his own adaptations – without complaint or expectation.

He was a devoted father, spending time each day to play cards and board games with his children. He touched the lives of many children beyond his family as a long-time Little League coach on Grand Island, and to his death, he remained an avid Boston Red Sox fan . Challenged with ongoing medical problems of his own and that of his wife, he was buoyed by the support of loving family, friends, and professional associates.

Never content to think only of his own needs, he became the co-founder, president and active member of the Polio Survivors Support Group of Western New York and worked tirelessly to secure transportation facilities for all disabled individuals in the region. He was the glue that kept us together – on track, determined, optimistic.

As fellow members of the support group founded by Don, we must continue to fight for the rights and needs of polio survivors. Moreover, we must do our part to see that polio is soon eradicated from the planet . We must do C. Donald O’Connor proud!

-Janice Nichols