Dorothy J. O’Connell, a career nursing professional and longtime Health Service Director at Middlesex Community College, well known for her community involvement in Greater Lowell, died Aug. 27 from pneumonia. She was 85.
Dorothy was born in Mt. Vernon, N.Y., on Oct. 24, 1934, the daughter of S. Dorothy (Howard) van Dresser and Alfred van Dresser, who worked in the machine tools industry.
In 1940 Dorothy’s family moved to Marlborough, Mass., where she attended local schools. An honors student, voted “Best Personality” by her classmates, she was graduated from Marlborough High School in 1952.
While growing up in Marlborough, Dorothy met her future husband, Shaun V. O’Connell, in 8th grade dancing school. They dated in high school, again in college, then married in 1958. They reared three children, making homes in Savannah, Amherst, Cambridge, Sudbury and Marlborough.
Dorothy led a dedicated professional life as a nurse, educator and administrator. In 1956 she was awarded a BA degree from Fitchburg State College and a Professional Nursing degree from Burbank Hospital, Fitchburg, Mass. She went on to earn a Master of Education degree in College Student Counseling and Personnel Services at Northeastern University in 1983, while working full time.
While raising three young children, Dorothy embarked on a six-decade health services career. She worked as a nurse at the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston, often handling overnight shifts, once caring for Robert Frost in his last weeks.
In 1977 she moved into a new role in health services administration. She began her work in health services at Bunker Hill Community College before moving on to Middlesex Community College (MCC).
Dorothy served as director of Health Services at MCC in Lowell and Bedford for 34 years, from 1978 through 2012. During her time at MCC, Dorothy built the college’s health services into a vibrant resource serving the needs of 20,000 credit and noncredit students. She helped to create and manage dozens of health and wellness initiatives ranging from disease prevention to injury treatments to bone marrow drives to emotional counseling.
Dorothy worked tirelessly as an advocate for the college, its students and the community at large. She spent long hours at her job, often working nights and weekends to ensure the success of programs inside and outside the college. She developed close relationships with hundreds of people throughout Greater Lowell, partnering on projects with city government, local nonprofit organizations, health professionals and area hospitals. She mobilized local resources to advance college-sponsored programs and always lent a hand to contribute to the success of outside projects.
Dorothy’s work at Middlesex extended far beyond health services. She mentored dozens of students over the years, formally and informally, guiding them into rewarding careers. Dorothy remembered all of them and they never forgot her. She drew upon her training, personal network and creativity to overcome obstacles and help the small college play a large role in the community.
Though Dorothy never sought personal credit for her work, she exhibited great pride in seeing students, colleagues, and the college itself succeed.
MCC recognized Dorothy’s contributions by naming an annual award after her: “The Dorothy O’Connell Unsung Hero Award,” honoring a student for his or her “unselfish devotion to MCC and/or fellow students.” The Department of Veterans Affairs named her in its Friend of Peer Services Award. In 1998 Dorothy received MCC’s Outstanding Professional Staff award. She also received the MCC President’s Award in 2003. Dorothy was honored for her work with HIV/AIDS victims by the Lowell AIDS Day Committee in 2009.
Retiring from MCC in 2012, Dorothy continued her career in area health venues, working on community programs for the city of Lowell and for an immunization clinic run by Lowell General Hospital until 2020.
Dorothy enjoyed traveling. She took many trips to Manhattan with her husband Shaun, attending musicals and exploring museums. They traveled frequently to Ireland to meet friends and appreciate the Irish landscape, and to Italy to visit its churches, galleries and restaurants. She made new friends wherever she went. She characteristically struck up conversations and made many lasting connections during her first trip to China, visiting ChonQing, Beijing and Xi’an with her son Liam and his family in 2005.
Dorothy particularly loved spending time with her children and grandchildren, who love her. While maintaining a demanding career and a full home life, she made sure there was always time in her schedule for her grandchildren’s school plays, youth soccer games, dance recitals, piano recitals, school gatherings and graduations.
She is survived by her husband of 62 years Shaun V. O’Connell; her son Michael S. O’Connell; her daughter Kathleen M. O’Connell; her five grandchildren, Angela H. O’Connell, Niall P. O’Connell, Sophie X. O’Connell, Seamus H. Rudolph and Stella M. Rudolph; her daughters-in-law Patricia E. Hittner and Feng Yang; and her nephew Richard Aspinwall Jr., her niece Jill Waldenburg and their families, including six grandnieces and grandnephews. She was predeceased by her son Liam P. O’Connell; her sister Sally Aspinwall and brother-in-law Richard Aspinwall; and her parents S. Dorothy (van Dresser) Green and Alfred van Dresser.
The family will be hosting a private graveside service. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Alternative House, a domestic violence shelter in Lowell.
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