WIUM Tristates Public Radio

My Farm Roots: Hard Work a Life Lesson

Aug 26, 2014

Every year on my birthday I know there’s a thin, flat package waiting for me to open. It’s wrapped with neat corner folds and held together perfectly with just three pieces of tape – nothing wasted.

I always knock on the front and hear the crisp, deep thud of a hardcover book. I know it’s a book. And I know who it’s from.

Thousands of miles, and years, away from his upbringing on a Kansas farm during the height of the Great Depression, Wilson O’Connell now lives in the Boston suburbs.
Credit Jeremy Bernfeld/Harvest Public Media

Reading isn’t just a hobby for my grandparents, it’s a way of life. It’s a life lesson, it’s a value to live by. And it’s one they’ve passed down to their kids and their kids’ kids. But I didn’t really know why until I interviewed my grandfather about his early life growing up on a farm in central Kansas.

Wilson and Dorothy O’Connell both grew up in Hutchinson, Kan., children of the Great Depression. Whip smart, ambitious and motivated, they worked hard from a young age, Wilson got a scholarship and they both attended the University of Kansas. They rarely, if ever, looked back.

Early life for my grandfather, Wilson O’Connell, was especially hard. A devastating combination of the crashing market, a catastrophic flood and family tragedy forced the three grocery stores his father owned to close and pushed the family in to bankruptcy. At eight years old, he moved to a tiny farm on the edge of town.

“Poverty was such a constant,” he said. “Everything was tainted by poverty.”

He hated farm life. It required constant back-breaking work in the hot Kansas sun to merely eke out a living. And he knew there was so much more. His father worked 15-20 hours a day and he forced the young Wilson in to the fields as much as possible.

“He wanted me to work hard, too, but I wanted to read,” he said. “So there was a constant friction.”

Reading was an escape. Nurtured by a teacher who saw promise, Wilson dove headfirst in to his school work. He studied hard. And the stories he read helped him see what was possible.

“I read everything I got my hands on,” he said. “I loved to read stories of people who had overcome adversity because I pictured myself in their shoes. They were able to come from something. And that’s what I wanted desperately, was to get out of the life I was leading.”

The O’Connell family moved to a small farm in Hutchison, Kansas, during the height of the Depression. Pictured: Mother Nina, father Bill, and children Peggy, Wilson and Nina May.
Credit Courtesy Wilson O’Connell

While he fought with his father about working on the farm and the value of learning, the lessons he learned early stuck with Wilson.

“That’s what I got from this was the importance of work and continuing even if you hated the job you were given,” he said. “It was important to do this if you wanted to get ahead. And that was my goal in life, was to get ahead.”

Eventually, Wilson and Dorothy did get out of the hard life they’d lived. Dorothy taught elementary school for years. They lived all over the world, thanks to a decades-long career at IBM, from Hong Kong to New York to Huntsville, Ala. But years later, after retiring to the Boston suburbs, Wilson is still a voracious reader at 85-years-old.

We all know that a book is what he wants for his birthday or for Christmas. And we know he won’t ever tear open the wrapping paper – he carefully slices it along a taped edge and folds it up to be re-used. Because after scrimping and saving and working for a lifetime, he still remembers where he came from. 

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