Introduction to Divine Favor

Dear Joe

J. F. Powers

Joe O’Connell–his mother’s maiden name was DesMarais–was born in 1927 in Chicago.  His father was a principal in the public schools there.  His paternal grandfather worked for the telephone company and had invented things for it, for which he was rewarded by the company.  He liked Joe.  Joe liked him too.  Joe also liked the wrought-iron fence in front of his grandfather’s house.  He hoped to have one like it someday.

Joe’s best friend (they’d met in second grade) had become a fine jazz pianist and singer at the Drake Hotel and now went by the name Buddy Charles.  Buddy’s stepfather was Muggsy Spanier, the famous cornetist.  (Joe’s first-born, Tom, was named after Buddy’s brother, a director in Hollywood.)  After leaving home, Joe had lived for a time with Muggs, his wife, Ruth, and buddy in their big apartment.  Muggs had turned into one of Joe’s best subjects–Joe was a marvelous mimic, but in no other sense an artist yet.  He drove a Checker cab at night.  During the last year of World War II, he served in the Army, mostly on Okinawa.

In 1953 Joe and Jody Wylie, herself an artist, a lovable, lethal, left-handed caricaturist, had met at a commercial art college in the Loop, were married in Holy Name Cathedral, and went to live in the woods near Chesterton, Indiana, near the Dunes.

They had decided to rent an old house there because of friends who owned a new house nearby, Norbert and Harriet Smith, both painters of some reputation.  Norbert’s day job was art director of an advertising agency on Michigan Avenue in Chicago and Harriet’s was the Smith children.  Norbert had encouraged Joe to do something and had got him his first commission–a couple of carved pilasters for a Swedish society of some kind.  Joe got his next commission–a short, life-size Saint Francis holding a bird, in limestone–for a church in Chicago.

Joe was then offered and accepted a teaching job for a year in the art department of Saint John’s University at Collegeville, Minnesota.  After that, Joe accepted an offer from Siena Heights College in Adrian, Michigan, where he and Jody were well treated and were urged to stay on.  But they decided to return to Minnesota, Joe not to teach, not to have to, with, for security, a commission to do a baptismal font for a church in Illinois.  And they now had the inheritance from Joe’s grandfather to buy the house in Collegeville they liked just well enough to buy–they would save it and make it their very own, inside and out, and they did–that old frame house, in which Joe would die peacefully forty years later.

During those years he went from cigarettes to cigars to pipes to nothing, and from Martinis and Scotch to wine and beer to nothing.

He was an entertaining, accommodating host, but not perfect in that respect.  He knew what it was like to have a guest get up after going to bed and leave in the night without saying goodbye.

How do I mean that?

Well, Garrison Keillor is someone–Dorothy Day, Gene McCarthy, Pope John, and Pope John Paul II are others–Joe was appreciative and admiring of, perhaps to a fault, for if one of them were ever criticized in his presence he’d start to frown and sort of hover over offenders if they were sitting down or sort of walk into them if they were standing up.

Joe’s studio at the College of Saint Benedict in Saint Joseph was where he taught and where he worked on heavyweight commissions, but he’d had another studio built near, though not too near, the house.  Here he kept his records, tapes, cassettes, mostly jazz–no bop, no rock.  But he was not above Bach, which is force-fed to listeners of Minnesota Public Radio, and which he and I argued about.  Here, too, he kept his soprano sax, which once he’d played for fun–he admired Sydney Bechet–but later only to resuscitate his lungs.

Two of his sons became musicians, Eric and Brian, who performed at Joe’s funeral, as did two friends, Don and Jeanne Molloy, playing beautiful Ellingtonia beautifully.

Joe had traveled regularly to the Twin Cities fro reasons medical–Dr. “Mal” Blumenthal–and musical–to hear Brian before he moved to New Orleans.  But there were other trips.  To visit Buddy in Chicago, Garrison in New York, Ruth (Muggs had died) in California.  To Detroit, where Joe had a big three-figure piece (The Family for the American Dental Association in Chicago) cast in bronze and where he was stuck up one night in a parking lot.  “Hey!” he’d called after the hoods.  “I need the wallet!”  It was thrown at him and nothing missing except the money.

To Cincinnati, to see Louise, his stepmother, on her deathbed (his own mother, Cecile, had died three days after his birth).  Louise did recognize him, but only for a moment when she opened her eyes, the last time she did.  Joe–he could never get over this–had been the odd in the family: his half brother Dick, a gifted silversmith, and his three half sisters, Sharon, Suzanne, Jeanne, were all more related to each other than he was to them.  Later, when he learned that under the terms of Louise’s will he would receive a full sharer, though this wasn’t really surprising, he cried.

In Italy, where their older daughter Laurie and her husband and the children were living, and also “Duke,” their youngest daughter, Joe wore himself out daily looking at work he might have done, not only in museums but in the streets, at monuments, and at detail on buildings.

On one trip, Joe and Jody stopped in Paris to see Norbert Smith, who then lived and later died there.

On another trip to Italy, Joe went through customs with, in a heavy little white suitcase, a tombstone for one of his grandchildren, the littlest one, Adriana.

Before beginning his commission for Christ the King Catholic Community in Las Vegas, Joe visited the site, but by the time he’d finished the job (four years later) he wasn’t well enough to attend the dedication ceremonies.  Fortunately, his apprentice, David Cofell, did attend and was given a video by the person in charge, Mary Jane Leslie.  So Joe was able to see the ceremonies, to hear Father William Kenny’s eulogy, which Joe thought excellent, and to view the work in question, all from his bed.

Joe’s coffin was made at the Saint John’s Woodworking Shop by Br. Gregory Eibensteiner, O.S.B., K.C. Marrin, and Michael Roske, from whom I learned that Joe had decided not to use the English walnut he owned and had been aging for this purpose, but the basswood ordinarily used by the monks, and he showed signs of not wanting to be talked out of it.

In 1958 Joe had produced a slate tombstone for Don Humphrey, a consummate silversmith who’d been employed by Saint Ben’s before Joe had, and who was a good friend of mine and I hope will be again, as I hope Joe will.

Dear Joe.  For his love and mercy I believe he has received divine love and mercy, and for his works of art, I dare say, divine favor. 

(J. F. Powers died on June 12, 1999, soon after completing this introduction about his friend Joe.)

Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press, the Order of Saint Benedict, Collegeville, Minnesota, from Divine Favor: The Art of Joseph O’Connell. Editor, Colman O’Connell. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c1999.  CSB, SJU and SJP Libraries Oversize N 6537.O265 D58 1999.