Howard High School mourns teacher-coach Students, teachers share their memories of Vincent O'Connell

September 01, 1998|By Jill Hudson Neal | Jill Hudson Neal,SUN STAFF Staff writer Dail Willis contributed to this article.

Hundreds of Howard High School students sat silently at their desks during the brief homeroom period yesterday as their teachers struggled to read a prepared statement aloud.

Most of the students had heard the news already, but hearing it from a teacher somehow made it worse: Last Friday, Baltimore County police had found the body of their beloved teacher and coach, Vincent "Craig" O'Connell, 50, lying in 18 inches of water in the Patapsco River after he committed suicide by jumping from a bridge.

"I just don't understand it at all," said Jon Wesson, 17, a senior at the Ellicott City school who happily recalled the many hours he spent studying for O'Connell's lengthy tests. "For him to leave a wife and five kids behind it just leaves me angry. I have so much respect for him, but I just don't get it.

"I mean, O'Connell's favorite movie was 'It's a Wonderful Life,' " Jon said, recalling the Jimmy Stewart character who contemplated suicide but learned the value of his life. "How can that be?"

Teachers drove home the movie's message themselves, that suicide is never an acceptable way to solve problems.

Andrew Elgort, a school psychologist and crisis intervention coordinator for the school system, said the "sense of confusion that the kids have is exactly what we expected. We're going to concentrate on balancing out the anti-suicide message with remembrances of this vibrant man."

Lia Bernstein, a senior whose varsity volleyball team was coached by O'Connell, said she was sympathetic to what he must have been going through during his last days.

"I just want everyone to remember him for all of the incredibly positive things that he brought to every student," she said as a counselor offered her a tissue for her tears.

After 23 years of coaching and teaching in Baltimore and Howard counties, O'Connell was one of Howard High's most popular -- and by all accounts, demanding -- teachers.

He taught history and American government and also coached three sports every year at Howard: basketball, volleyball and tennis.

"All the students loved Craig so much," said Bettye Fennell, another social studies teacher whose homeroom was next door to O'Connell's for more than 10 years. "Oh, they complained, complained and complained about how tough he was. But down to a student, they would say that they learned so much from him."

O'Connell coached the school's girls basketball team to a state championship in 1994 and to three regional titles.

A star basketball player at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, O'Connell was also a Vietnam veteran.

Throughout the day, students wrote small notes of condolence to O'Connell's family that were dropped into baskets on three tables in an assembly room. A large bulletin board was set up for messages to the deceased teacher.

One read: "You helped me learn a lot about history. I'll keep getting A's for you." Another student wrote that O'Connell was his "favorite teacher. I have mad respect for you."

"In a strange way, Mr. O'Connell's death has been a great bonding experience for the teachers and students," Howard Principal Mary J. Day said. "We should all be better people Hopefully [the students] will learn to appreciate their friends and families more."

Pub Date: 9/01/98

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