November 1, 2023

Dear Colleagues,

With great sadness, I write to share that Professor Emeritus of English Daniel O’Connell died last week at age 85. Dan served in the English Department for nearly four decades, teaching Irish literature, European Modernism and Marxist literary theory. His former students and faculty colleagues remember him as an inspiring lecturer, a dear friend, and an eminently supportive and spirited colleague.

Dan earned his B.A. from Hunter College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he studied with renowned postcolonial scholar Edward Said. After joining the HWS faculty in 1971 as an assistant professor, Dan rose to the rank of associate professor and then full professor, serving as Chair of the English and Comparative Literature Department from 1983 to 1985 and again in 1991. He authored the 1974 book The Opposition Critics, as well as many reviews and articles in journals such as James Joyce Quarterly, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and Novel: A Forum on Fiction. Dan retired in 2008.

In nominating Dan for the Colleges’ Distinguished Faculty Award, two alums whose time at HWS spanned nearly 30 years underscored the indelible impact of his teaching. Joseph Curley ’73 described how Dan’s “intelligent and impassioned presentation of [William Butler Yeats’] poems and their historical and cultural backdrop spurred my curiosity and illuminated my reading. He conveyed a sense of the ennobling gravitas in Yeats’ greatest works.… He brought the texts alive and made it possible for us, the students, to try to bring them into our lives if we chose to wrestle with them as he clearly had.” 

Jonathan Widmark ’02 reflected: “Professor O’Connell always conveyed a great passion for what he taught. Teaching seemed like less of a job but more of an opportunity to share his knowledge of the things he loved…the things that had moved him. Every paper or exam we ever took was never considered completed until we met one-on-one to discuss it. Despite the fact that the grade had already been assigned, the fact that he wanted to discuss our work one-on-one every time always meant so much to me.”

Professor Emerita of Art Elena Ciletti notes, Dan’s “varied charms and enthusiasms [included] his glee in dancing, especially to ’60s Motown classics, with Martha and the Vandellas at the top. At our Geneva faculty parties, he exuded a rare joy with vivid style — feet and legs together, plus upper arms and elbows held tight at his side, yet grooving with panache, especially to ‘I Heard It Through The Grape Vine.’ For his many friends, he will rock ever on.”

Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Intersectional Justice Betty Bayer and Professor Emerita of Religious Studies Susan Henking recall that “Dan’s theoretical acumen and teaching meant we knew students would understand Said and much more. Together with [his wife] Jo, a regular presence at parties at our house, Dan’s leadership of conga lines — whether dressed in his usual dapper style or in his hip, high fly-fishing wading boots — moved us all.…. We missed him when he left the Colleges. We miss him still.”

Associate Professor Emerita of English Elizabeth Lyon writes: “Dan was the kind of colleague and friend who never failed at the end of the day if your office door was open to pop his head in to say goodbye, good weekend, drive safe, off to NYC. He was a gifted mimic and enormously fun to be around….”

Other colleagues, Professor of English Anna Creadick and Professor Emeritus of English Jim Crenner, recall Dan’s humor — “his wry wit and no-nonsense approach to the profession” (Creadick) and “his delight in jokes, even bad ones” (Crenner).

I was struck by the words of Professor Creadick, who inherited a number of Dan’s books after his retirement, particularly in her observation of the “poignant and strange” continuity of collegial friendships — “the way we inhale and exhale one another’s words, carry each other’s books, occupy the same rooms.”

Dan leaves behind a remarkable legacy as a teacher, scholar and friend to so many in our community. Please keep his family in your thoughts, including his wife Jo Anna Isaak, a former professor of art history at HWS.  


Mark D. GearanPresident