Judy O’Connor ’76 spent a lot of time in classrooms. She has held almost every role imaginable, from student to parent volunteer to teacher.
She juggled her career as an elementary school teacher with the job that was the most important to her—being a mom.
“It didn’t slow down my extracurricular activities too much,” she says. “I always loved being there for all my kids’ games and all that kind of stuff. So as all moms do, you stretch yourself pretty thin when you’re balancing a career and a family. But we did it.”
O’Connor maintained this balancing act for years, raising four successful children. And then in August 2012, shortly before she was due to start another school year, her son, Marty, fell down a flight of stairs and became paralyzed. In the months following the accident, she split her time between her son’s hospital in California and her teaching job in Florida, while her husband, Marty O’Connor ’75, remained with their son. The emotional toll of being so far away was tremendously taxing.
“We had no idea what the outcome was going to be,” she says. “So I muscled through and honored my contract that year. We all learned a lot about spinal cord injuries. I used to challenge my students—I would tell them, ‘O.K., try to sit still. You can’t move anything in your body for five minutes.’ And the kids couldn’t even do that.”
A New Job: Helping Her Son Succeed
Following that school year, O’Connor retired so that she could take care of her son full-time. After about a year or two of recovery, Marty had improved physically, but mentally, “he was kind of going nuts and needed a challenge.”
It was at this point that they found out about the Swim with Mike organization. Named for a member of the USC swim team who suffered a spinal cord injury, the fund provides scholarships for physically challenged athletes. Marty, who was a snowboarder and volleyball player in college, was eligible.
With Swim with Mike’s support, Marty was able to pursue an MBA at Chapman University in Orange, California. Knowing he would need an assistant to achieve this goal, his mother stepped up to the plate.
“My job with Marty was to take notes and organize everything for him at school and at home,” she says. “Once he was at his computer with his mouthstick and voice software, he was fine, but I had to get everything in front of him since he can’t use his arms and his hands.”
For two years, O’Connor attended all of her son’s classes with him, even though, she concedes, “it’s like any kid’s nightmare to have your mother go into school with you when you are 27 years old.” She kept a low profile and introduced herself as Marty’s assistant.
The arrangement couldn’t have been too nightmarish, though, because when Marty graduated in May of 2017, he petitioned Chapman University for his mom to receive an honorary MBA alongside him. She was taking him onstage to receive his diploma when she was surprised with one of her own.
“I was backing out of the way, and then the dean was pulling on my arm, and I’m going, ‘What? Am I in the way?’ And then I hear the announcer on the loudspeaker, and I was just—I was in shock,” she recalls. “I was so touched, because my son has told me, ‘Well Mom, that was my way of thanking you for all of the hours that you spent with me.’”
Family Sticks Together and Makes a Difference
Now the O’Connors are both putting their MBAs to use. Marty is the executive vice president of DIVERTbrands, an action sports social enterprise. In addition, both he and Judy run the Marty O’Connor Foundation for Progress, a nonprofit that fundraises to help those who have suffered the same kind of debilitating injuries that Marty did. The experience has given Marty and his mother both a new lease on life.
“When you get blindsided by something horrendous, it’s like, you can’t let it get you down,” O’Connor says. “There is always a way you can figure things out, and there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. I mean, my goodness, we finished grad school. I’m not afraid to tackle any challenge that comes my way. I have this sense of calm in my life.”
With all that O’Connor has been through, her positivity might seem a bit surprising. But through it all, she and her son have always had people around them holding them up.
“Don’t underestimate the power of your family sticking together and praying together when things are down, because you can’t do it alone,” she says. “You just have to let other people in and band together and it’s amazing what you can do. We will never give up hope.”
To learn more about the work the Marty O’Connor Foundation for Progress does to help patients with debilitating injuries, please visit mocprogress.org.