Media Arts and Design

SMAD's O'Connor ready for 'Act III' in retirement


SUMMARY: This semester will be Thomas O'Connor's final semester at JMU after teaching here for 30 years. "I look forward to [retirement] with great anticipation, and a little fear and trembling," O'Connor said. "It's always good not to be too certain about things because that's when you fall. It's been a terrific career and I look forward to the next month."

Thomas O'Connor

This story originally appeared in The Breeze and is written by Caroline Jansen.

Being in the presence of an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer is something rare. Luckily for JMU students, some have the pleasure of calling him professor.

From his classical acting training, which included improvisation and script analyzing, to producing and writing over 50 documentaries, media arts and design professor Thomas P. O’Connor has helped shape the careers of thousands of JMU students.

Prior to beginning his career in teaching at JMU 30 years ago, O’Connor briefly took on work as an actor.

“I worked full time,” O’Connor said. “I started as a Shakespearean actor, and knew it was going to be a tough road to hoe.”

O’Connor then found new relief in writing and producing screenplays. He worked at PBS, producing documentaries for seven years, until his friend Michael Scanlan, who was the president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Steubenville, Ohio, at the time, approached him about considering a new career path.

“If you’re doing that kind of work in the industry and you don’t really care about the subject, it’ll kill you,” O’Connor said. “I wanted to do the things that I was interested in, so combining academia with producing allowed me to do that.”

However, O’Connor didn’t forfeit his passion for producing when he assumed the professor role. 

“At JMU I was always working on something, so I would always have students intern and come on shoots with me,” O’Connor said. “I’ve tried to involve students all the way.”

O’Connor used his experience and contacts working as an actor and screenplay writer to his— and his students’—advantage. He has invited professionals in the industry, such as Charles Guggenheim (“The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery”), JMU alumna Barbara Hall (“Madam Secretary”) and David Taylor (“Nixon: A Presidency Revealed”), to come speak to his students.

The guest speakers “were as valuable as anything I had to give, largely because they never left the business,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor has contributed to the JMU community, specifically the media arts and design department, through his extensive work in JMU in LA: The Entertainment Industry, a study abroad program that allows students to live, work and learn in Los Angeles for two months.

“It was actually one of my student’s ideas, Geoff LaTulippe – who wrote the movie ‘Going the Distance’ with Drew Barrymore, a comedy about a distance relationship – to suggest I start the program,” O’Connor said. “I said, ‘Yeah I’ve been thinking we should do that for years. How can we really be a film and media program and not have a presence in Los Angeles or New York?’”

Six years later, the program is still generating as much interest and excitement as when it first began.

Jeremy Benbow, a senior media arts and design major, experienced the benefits of this program first-hand last summer.

“I came [to JMU] for the program exclusively,” Benbow said. “I was between here and VCU – this program is what sold me over. That trip changed my life. I’m really grateful to him and the time he took to make sure I was OK, and he focused on what I wanted to do.” 

Benbow credits his positive experiences in the program to O’Connor’s sincerity and open-mindedness.

“The way he discussed each of our ideas with us felt like he was invested in them himself,” Benbow said. “This made it a lot easier to open up with him and explore with him different avenues of scriptwriting.”

Alex Fairchild, a senior media arts and design major, expressed how O’Connor’s passion for the entertainment industry and his prior experience shined through in this program.

“Tom is very involved in entertainment,” Fairchild said. “He just cares so much about it and you can really tell. I feel like he made [the program] more than he needed to — obviously in a good way. You can just tell that this is Tom’s heart project. [He and his wife] both really love it and I think that really makes a difference.” 

As a part of JMU in LA, each student must seek and apply for their own internships. Fairchild noted how O’Connor would draw on his own connections in LA to benefit his students. 

“He just wanted to help get you in the right direction,” Fairchild said. “If he in any way could help you get that internship, he did. It benefitted a lot of people. He is going to leave a lasting legacy within the SMAD program.”

Emilie Hoefler, a junior theatre and dance and media arts and design double major, attended the London semester abroad program with O’Connor last fall.

“He was a big part of my London experience, which was one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Hoefler said.

Hoefler compared O’Connor and his wife to being her “surrogate parents” while abroad.

“He was always very courteous with us,” Hoefler said. “He always wanted to hear about our day and what we had been doing and what trips we were going on. He was always very interested in us and that was really nice, to have someone who was always invested in our time abroad.”

Hoefler is currently enrolled in O’Connor’s screenplay writing course at JMU. She said the sincerity and passion for the industry O’Connor expressed abroad has carried over to campus.

“He told me to not be afraid to take those big risks – to write it bigger,” Hoefler said. “It’s better to be told to take it down rather than to write too small. He has taught us to make the strong choices from the beginning.” 

This semester will be O’Connor’s final semester at JMU after teaching here for 30 years.

“I look forward to [retirement] with great anticipation, and a little fear and trembling,” O’Connor said. “It’s always good not to be too certain about things because that’s when you fall. It’s been a terrific career and I look forward to the next month.” 

O’Connor plans to pursue more traveling, acting and producing upon retirement.

“I’m moving to Act III,” O’Connor said. “Retiring for me doesn’t mean golf. For me, Act III means doing something else.”

Published: Thursday, April 21, 2016

Last Updated: Thursday, April 5, 2018

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