Program Nets O'Connor Emmy

Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History) has earned plaudits as a leading Boston historian, but his impressive writings and research never generated as much excitement as his latest achievement: winning an Emmy Award.

O'Connor earned the Emmy for his role as historical consultant and narrator for the second of a two-part series produced by WGBH-TV, "Boston: The Way It Was." The documentary received the Emmy for "Outstanding Cultural Program" from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' New England Chapter.

"I guess that was my 15 minutes of fame," joked O'Connor, in the warm voice that landed him the role as narrator. "I've spent my whole life writing journal articles and books, but I guess people expect me to do those sorts of things, so they aren't impressed. Suddenly, I get an Emmy and people say 'Wow.' I've gotten a lot of credit for this and my social standing has gone up tremendously."

Originally, he said, the producer for "Boston: The Way It Was" called to "pick his brain" for historical information, but later asked him to narrate her project because she thought his voice evoked the spirit of the old Boston neighborhoods of the 1930s and 1940s, which were the focus of both documentaries.

Prof. Emeritus Thomas O'Connor (History) with the Emmy he won as narrator of the second part of "Boston: The Way It Was." (Photo by Gary Gilbert)

The two documentaries have a highly nostalgic flavor, O'Connor said, and recall an era of innocence and close-knit neighborhoods. The Emmy-winning second part focused on various Boston institutions like the Boston Union Club and the Italian-American Club, Revere Beach and the old Boston Garden.

While he is thrilled to have the Emmy, which he displays in his dining room, what pleases O'Connor most is how people were touched by the films. Recently, O'Connor said, an elderly woman approached him on the MBTA, having recognized him from his brief five minute appearance on camera. "She told me her life's story and shared her experiences of growing up in Boston - all in about 10 minutes," he said.

Viewers also have described to O'Connor how fascinated, yet bewildered, their children were upon hearing about the customs of the day, such as the expectation that men wear jacket and tie to the Totem Pole, a dance parlor often frequented by Boston College football fans after the games.

"Times certainly have changed, but the documentaries touched all generations, which is quite gratifying," he said.

-Sandra Howe

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