Helen Mabry Connor, 96, attends a gathering at the school with her children and grandchildren
By Dan McWilliams
On the first full day of school Aug. 9, Knoxville Catholic High School began its 90th year with a gathering of four generations of the Connor family, all of whom came through KCHS or are attending there now.
The event took place in the Mike and Carol Connor Lobby of the school’s new St. Gregory the Great Auditorium.
Ninety-six-year-old Helen Marie Mabry Connor of the Knoxville Catholic High class of 1945 is the matriarch of the family. She calls the presence of four generations of her family at KCHS “overwhelming.”
“It’s great. I love it,” she said.
Mrs. Connor remembers playing basketball at Knoxville Catholic.
“It was wonderful. We had a really good time,” she said. “Sister Marie David was my homeroom teacher. She taught Spanish and French and geometry. She was really smart.”
Mrs. Connor attended KCHS on its former Magnolia Avenue campus. The Ashe house served as the school during her days there. The house was torn down eventually as more modern buildings were added to the campus. Mrs. Connor said it’s “wonderful” how KCHS is “built up” today.
“I went to school all during the war. If the boys didn’t register by the time they were 18 years old, they got drafted. When I graduated, I think there were 16 girls and six boys,” she said.
KCHS has grown from 11 seniors in its first graduating class in 1933 to 143 receiving diplomas in 2022.
The wartime years were “kind of tough with rationing and all that stuff, but we made it,” Mrs. Connor said.
And what is her secret to staying young?
“I walk every day a mile or two. We have long halls where I live, and I walk up and down the halls. There are four floors, and I walk all of them,” she said.
Mrs. Connor’s great-grandson, Connor Welch of the class of 2026, attended the gathering.
“It’s kind of crazy to think about, that she went to the same high school a long time ago,” Connor said. “I feel like I’ll be the first of many more to go to Catholic, because there’s a lot more great-grandchildren. I’m just the oldest.”
Connor will be the 30th member of his family to graduate from KCHS.
Mandy Welch (’98) is Connor’s mom. Helen is her grandmother.
“We’re just blessed to have her every day that we have her,” she said. “She’s an amazing role model and an amazing person. It’s really great to carry on the tradition and listen to her stories and everything else.”
While Connor is the oldest of the fourth generation, Mrs. Welch is the oldest of the third generation. Patton Watkins (’23), a senior at KCHS, is the youngest of the third generation.
“I didn’t really notice the impact of my family this year until the [auditorium] lobby came out because this was named after them,” Patton said.
Christy Watkins (’89) is a second-generation member of the family. Helen is her mother. The gathering in the auditorium lobby was emotional for her, she said.
“I get weepy at any moment. It’s just so wonderful. It’s such a wonderful example of faith and family,” she said.
Mike Connor (’69), Helen’s son, is a restaurateur who owns eateries in six states. Regarding four generations of his family being at KCHS, he said he “never would have thought it.”
“I think it’s a great thing. [Helen has] really been a terrific legacy for everybody. She’s the matriarch of the family. I’m (class of) ’69 and my sister is ’89, and these kids are going to graduate in 2023 and ’26.”
Mr. Connor said “it’s fabulous” to have members of the family coming to KCHS through the years.
“My mother’s got 19 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren, and the vast majority of all of them went here as well. She’s basically had someone here in the ’60s, someone in the ’70s, someone there in the ’80s, someone there in the ’90s, and then in the 2000s all the way through. There’s always been someone who’s related who’s been here.”
Knoxville Catholic president Dickie Sompayrac enjoys having the Connor family at his school.
“That’s one of the first families I learned about when I came in 2005, how influential the Connor family is here not only in Knoxville but specifically here at Knoxville Catholic,” he said. “It’s really special to see a family that has had four generations come through this school. It’s pretty awesome.”