By Siobhainn O'Connor Van Santen
Every Saturday at 11am for over 30 years, Mike O’Connor of the “Mike O’Connor Show” opened his show in Gaelic, offering a greeting and a welcome. Over the next two hours, he would share the air with the Irish community in Chicago. He generously offered time to showcase the happenings of clubs, social events, benefits, live music of local and touring musicians, the musings of authors, and whoever else might stop by the studio. His love of all things Irish, especially the music and sport, played out on radios all over Chicago and Chicagoland. This radio program was his gift to the Irish community of Chicago.
Michael “Mickey” Francis O’Connor was born August 12, 1929, the third of six children of Thomas and Mary (nee Roche) O’Connor. He was born in Dublin, but spent most of his childhood in the village of Ballinameen, outside Boyle, Co. Roscommon. His mother was a qualified teacher and his father was Principal of the National School in Ballinameen. Mike's love of the GAA was born and nurtured in Roscommon. He and two friends created a football club named St. Attracta's (for their parish), which continues today and is now known as the Balinameen GAA club.
Both sides of his family were involved in the movement to rid Ireland of English occupation. As a girl, his mother was a messenger. She hid away the slips of paper, tucking them into her shoes. She bravely navigated fields and roads to locate the intended recipient, always with a watchful eye for trouble. Her brothers were actively involved in the IRA and the O’Connor children were regaled with stories of their exploits. As a young man, Mickey’s father Thomas was Secretary of the local Sinn Fein Cumann.
Mike attended Summer Hill in Sligo and spent time at All Hallows College in Dublin. His insurance career began early; at 19 he was "on the bike" selling life insurance house to house all over the West of Ireland. It didn’t take long for the siren song of adventure to call, and he left home for England. He worked for an insurance company by day and pulled pints in the evening. Mike left London for the USA in the mid-1950's. He came out to his Uncle John Roche in Buffalo, NY. He lived all over the East Coast; New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Boston. He fully expected to return home to Ireland at some stage. Those plans changed on Thanksgiving night, 1959. He and his buddy drew straws to decide which dance to attend. Boston won. He noticed Margaret (Marion) Whyte immediately and confided to his friend that she was the one he would marry. The Galway girl didn’t stand a chance against a determined Roscommon charmer. They were married in April of 1962. Three children followed; one in each state they resided. Michael Jr. was born in Massachusetts, Mary Ellen, Louisiana, and Siobhainn, Chicago.
Mike loved the challenges and change that a transfer brought. By the time he was sent to Chicago he was in his late 30's with a wife, small children and a mortgage. It was time to stick. After working most of his adult life as an underwriter, Mike itched to get back to his first love. Selling. The chance to fulfill his dream was delivered via a pink slip and a severance package. But was it too risky? He began to meet and get to know Chicago's enormous Irish community. Mike always enjoyed socializing, so he felt completely comfortable digging in and getting more involved in various clubs and benefits. He regularly volunteered to visit the Gibbons radio program on WOPA radio in Oak Park to publicize upcoming events. Tommy Gibbons Sr got to know and like Mike and noticed how comfortable he felt behind the microphone. Tommy decided that Mike would make a great radio show host. He encouraged him to start his own show. When Mike wavered, worried about the commitment of both time and resources, Tommy convinced him by saying it would allow people to get to know and feel comfortable with him. In other words, it would be good for business! With trepidation, Mike made the leap.
On November 5, 1971, the Mike O'Connor Show made its debut. Time accelerated, going faster and faster, every week. Mike, always a staunch advocate of Irish culture, filled air time with the music he loved. His immense knowledge of all things Irish, his passion for the Gaelic games, Irish culture and politics, and his quick wit and good humor quickly made his show a favorite. In fact, Mike became so involved visiting with guests and discussing the music, sports, and news from home that most of the time he forgot to mention the fact that he sold insurance. Much to the surprise of Mike and his wife, he LOVED hosting the radio show. Soon he became known around town as Mike O'Connor, radio show host. And, oh yes. He sold insurance too.
He continued to host the radio show until his health deteriorated. He suffered from Parkinson’s, Graves’s disease, and Parkinson’s dementia. His wife Margaret kept him at home despite immense challenges and sacrifices. Michael “Mickey” Francis O’Connor passed away peacefully just a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday on July 1st, 2014.
His gift to the Chicago Irish community continues every Saturday morning in the very same studio where it began. It is now WPNA radio, the broadcast is still from 11-1pm on 1490am (live stream at www.wpna1490am.com), hosted by his daughter Siobhainn, his wife Margaret, and dear friend, Breege Looney. Every Saturday for over 30 years, Mike opened and closed his show with Gaelic. He always ended with this phrase:"Slán agus beannacht Dé libh"-
Good Bye and God bless all of you.