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Thursday August 9, 2012

Joseph T. O'Connell

Scholar, husband, father, friend, activist. Born June 1, 1940 in Boston. Lived in Toronto most of his life. Died in New York, May 6, 2012, of cerebral hemorrhage, aged 71.

On a beautiful afternoon in May, a large group of mourners filled St. Basil's Church in Toronto to celebrate the life of Joe. The reception afterward brought together a wide mixture of friends, the kind of come-one, come-all party that he and his wife Kathy loved to host at their house in the Annex in Toronto.

Joe's fellow scholars and colleagues were there from Canada, the U.S. and overseas. Former students were there and neighbours from Olive Avenue and Joe's fellow activists and workers from the Krishna Consciousness and buddies from the Out of the Cold program, and of course, all kinds of family and friends and friends of friends who had heard of Joe.

Joe was a lot of things to a lot of different people.

He was a teacher and a scholar, his professional life focusing on his work at the Centre for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto. He and Kathy, also a scholar, in the work of the Nobel Prize author, Rabindranath Tagore, made frequent trips to India and to Dhaka, Bangladesh, where Joe helped to establish a Department of World Religions and Culture. Visva-Bharati University in India welcomed Joe, as did Oxford University and fellow scholars from the University of London. Joe's life would have been quite full and rewarding had he been only a scholar and teacher.

Joe was an American who brought a strong social conscience to Toronto. From his arrival in 1968 to the present, he threw himself into numerous local causes and made his adopted city better for it. This social awareness might be summed up in his 15-year work in the Out of the Cold program at St. Peter's and St. Matthew's churches, Toronto.

You haven't lived until you've seen Joe "work the room" at these weekly Out of the Cold get-togethers. He was everywhere - checking the sandwiches, bandaging feet, selecting the right winter wear for shelter guests, and of course, offering comfortable conversation and encouragement to everyone who dropped by for help.

As a security chief, he always took the job seriously: He wouldn't brook misrule, but each newcomer would be treated with equal compassion and respect. No doubt about it, things will be a little colder next winter at St. Peter's with Joe gone from the door.

One of the best things Joe did was to help and encourage his wife Kathleen (only Joe could call her "Kitty") in her own scholarship and teaching career. He loved her, his kids and his grandkids. Nothing would please him more than Kathy's continued work on Tagore.

In Tagore's most famous essay, "East and West," he wrote: "I have no doubt in my mind that the West owes its true greatness, not so much to its marvellous training of intellect, as to its spirit of service devoted to the welfare of man."

It's an idea that fits Joe's life perfectly.

Bill Smart was one of Joe's many friends.


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