We are the parents of a son who was senselessly murdered by a single punch and we’d like to share his life story so you will understand, and hopefully learn from, the damage one punch can do.A remarkable, fun-loving and compassionate young man, our son, John “Okie” O’Connell was finishing his final year of Westfield State College in Massachusetts with the hopes and dreams of a happy, prosperous life surrounded by his loving family and friends. Filled with a desire to serve his country like both his grandfathers, Okie had enlisted in the United States Coast Guard and completed his physical exam shortly before his death. On October 21, 2005, John attempted to stop a fight between a friend and another man. Playing the role of peacemaker, he was punched without provocation. He hit his head on the ground, lapsed into a coma and died of his injuries less than 24 hours later. John O'Connell was twenty-one.
While we knew John to be a wonderful son, brother, grandson, cousin, nephew and friend, we did not fully realize the scope of his goodness or the effect he had on so many people and how deeply he touched their lives. His death brought more people together than we could ever have imagined and their stories of his kindness and generosity came not as a surprise to us or the people who knew him, but rather with a true sense of awe as to how quietly he performed his acts of kindness and how profoundly he affected people – many of whom even his closest friends were unaware.
An accomplished high school athlete at North Quincy High School in Massachusetts, Okie tried to emulate Larry Bird’s commitment to sports and admired his determination to be the best keeping 33 as his favorite number. Coincidentally, in high school John developed atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia, as did Larry Bird and as a result, John focused his athletic energies at the intramural level in college playing with his many friends and inviting athletes of all levels to participate so they too would experience the fun and the camaraderie. After his death, Westfield State College established the John “Okie” O’Connell Award “to be given to an outstanding student athlete who best reflects John’s sportsmanship and athleticism.”
From sharing a cup of coffee with a lonely stranger to quietly helping elderly neighbors without recognition to befriending and supporting those less fortunate than he, John “Okie” O’Connell was the kind of young man anyone would be proud to call a son, brother, friend – we certainly are.
John was too young to have a legacy, but a friend of Okie wrote in his guestbook, “Heroes come and go…legends never die.”