BRIDGEPORT—When Terry O’Connor steps down later this year after 26 years of service as executive director of the Cardinal Shehan Center and six years at the McGivney Center, his retirement will mark the end of an era of growth and transformation at the downtown youth center sponsored by the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Generations of young men and women have passed through its doors, some going on to fame in college and professional sports, others in business, political and civic leadership.
While perhaps best known for some of the sports prodigies who grew up on the hardwood floor, the Shehan Center has evolved under O’Connor to be a place of after-school programs, mentoring and other social, cultural and learning opportunities.
The McGivney Center, which serves the city’s East Side, provides similar learning and recreation activities in their facility on the grounds of St. Charles Borromeo Parish.
O’Connor was first introduced to Fairfield County when he was named coach of the Fairfield University basketball team in 1981, after serving as an assistant coach at Harvard. A native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., he earned a bachelor’s degree from Niagara College and a master’s from Syracuse University and began his career as a physical education teacher.
After his coaching tenure at Fairfield, he worked for International Special Olympics and Robustelli Sports Marketing.
“I didn’t go cold turkey from coaching,” he says, noting that he coached the New Haven Skyhawks in the U.S. Basketball League and also ran a summer basketball camp for a number of years.
Sports fans also remember him from his popular “College Hoops Talk” on WICC Radio.
In 1992, he was encouraged by Shehan Center board member Fred Judd to apply for the position as executive director. He soon found himself in an interview with Bishop Edward M. Egan.
“We hit it off great,” O’Connor remembers. He was chosen over 104 applicants, and succeeded the legendary George Fasolo, first director of the Shehan Center, which opened in 1962.
In his 26 year tenure, he has been at the helm for a remarkable run of achievements, including a re-shaping of the mission to include many new learning and after-school programs, and the creation of a $1.9 million endowment fund to provide academic scholarships to Shehan Center members who wish to attend Catholic schools in the greater Bridgeport area.
Former McGivney Center board chair Paul Gleason also credits O’Connor with turning around the finances at the McGivney, which had financial challenges when he agreed to take on the role of executive director in 2012.
“Terry’s coming to the McGivney Center was the turning point for the organization and ensured the center would be there for the more than 450 children and families it serves in the East Side. His leadership has expanded resources and given us a plan going forward,” Gleason said.
Today, more than 4,500 young people are registered Shehan Center members, where they participate in a wide range of activities and classes including dance, swimming, photography, computers, science and cooking.
“And we have more sports programs than ever,” says O’Connor of the wide range of offerings including basketball teams, aquatics, golf, physical education classes, and a fitness center.
O’Connor says the sports and learning programs come together in a seamless way to engage kids and help them to be lifetime learners. In many cases they’re introduced to activities that would be otherwise absent from their lives.
“Without us exposing the members to all of these opportunities, who will?” he says.
A master fundraiser, he now presides over 23 fundraising events a year at the Shehan Center. His roster includes something for everyone—the Celebrity Breakfast, two golf classics, a Dodge Ball Tournament, Casino Night, and the Great Shehan Trivia Classic, as well as the McGivney MiniGolf event.
Former Shehan board chair Anne McCrory, who now serves as chief legal and real estate officer of the diocese, says that Terry O’Connor has brought a unique skill set to the job.
“Terry represents a great combination of fundraising skills that have expanded resources, while also having the ability to connect closely with the mission, the staff, volunteers and young people served by both Shehan and McGivney.”
McCrory, who is leading the search committee, says an active search for O’Connor’s replacement as director of both the Shehan and McGivney centers will officially begin in midMarch. Details will be posted on the diocesan website: www. bridgeportdiocese.com.
Terry O’Connor and his wife, Mary Ann, a retired health care executive, live in Trumbull and are members of Christ the King parish. They are the parents of two grown sons.
“I’ll be four months shy of 72 when I step down at the end of the year. I always said that when I got to be 70, it would be time for us to talk about the next phase. It’s a good time; my wife, Mary Ann just retired this year. She’s doing some consultant work and I have some irons in the fire. I hope someone new can take the center to another level.
What should our readers know about the young people who come to the Shehan and McGivney centers?
The biggest lesson people can take from the centers is that given the opportunity, anybody regardless of ethnicity, race or politics can succeed, but they need help along the way—not a hand out, but a hand up. We’ve proven if you bring kids into a safe learning environment, where counselors and staff care about their well-being, they will flourish.
How important is the fundraising in your job?
Funding for any non-profit is the number one thing. It’s what keeps our doors open for the nearly 5,000 kids who come to the centers every year.
You make it look easy!
I’ve always believed that people give to people. A big part is obviously the kids. Whether or not you have kids, they are our future. People get the fact that our inner cities struggle. If they can make a contribution to lift a child, they’re willing to do that.
Have you noticed a change in the young people since you first took over 25 years ago?
The kids coming through our doors are the same. They have that same smile when they walk in and say hello. We may have some fun ways to trick them into learning so they don’t think they’re in school, but they also know they’re going swimming or on a field trip. They’re as eager as the kids were 25 years ago to come into the building.
Do you see your legacy as a fund raiser, coach or administrator?
I’ve always been at teacher at heart. I’ve taught kindergarten through junior college. I always approached coaching basketball as a teacher. The gym might be a much bigger classroom, but you’re teaching young people about life and how to behave.
I’m proud of the programs we’ve added to help them learn. I want them to walk through the doors and ask, “What else can I learn?