Remembering Monsignor Pat Connor

A former student recalls his high school principal as being ‘one of the good guys’

By George Valadie

We first met many years ago. “Hello, Father, it’s nice to meet you.”

“Well, thank you, it’s nice to meet y’all, too. I really appreciate you inviting me. This is nice.”

“Let me introduce everybody,” I offered. “I’m George, and this is Pat, and this is Myron, and Ann, and Mary Ellen, and Fritz, and this is Pat, too, and Paula and Cathy, and this is my mom and these are his parents and this is …”

Father had been assigned as principal of our high school in the summer before my friends and I were to begin our senior year.

Unusually bold of me in those days, I took it upon myself to invite our new principal to a late-summer cookout at the lake to meet a group of us and our parents.

We had heard a little about the new guy. He’d attended our rival school, had been a teacher for a few years and an assistant principal for a couple.

But this was to be his first principal role, and with our last year just around the corner, we hoped to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of the man who would guide our final semesters.

Talk about first impressions! That was 50-plus years ago, and I have never forgotten nor understood how—after nothing but those introductions—he called each of us by name throughout the rest of the evening and never missed a one.

Father Pat Connor.

I met him as my principal, but he died as my friend.

Many readers won’t know him. I can honestly say you’d be a better person if you had.

He served six popes, six bishops, and untold thousands of Catholics and non-Catholics alike across the Diocese of Nashville since his ordination in 1961 until last night, when the Lord he promised to serve called him to his final post.

If I recall correctly, his only assignment to our area of the state lasted but the four years he served at Notre Dame High School.

The mark he left, though, will last forever.

I should call him Monsignor Connor since Pope Francis saw to it he received the honor he so deservedly earned. But his new title never quite rolled off my tongue like it should.

Whenever we’d get together, I’d always make the same mistake and always follow with the same apology.

He knew I didn’t mean to do it; he knew it wasn’t purposeful or disrespectful; it’s just he’s always been “Father” to me. And he always will.

The fact that he never cared about being called “Father” after he was named a monsignor—even a little bit—well, that’s just one of the many, many things I will miss about the man. Because we’ve all met people who feel otherwise about such things. And they want us to feel otherwise as well.

I’ve got a bad habit of sending belated notes to folks who should have already heard from me for one reason or another. Birthdays and anniversaries, thank-yous and thinking-of-yous. I really should be better.

Now, sadly, I am too late. There’s so much I’d like to say.

Nancy and I have talked about him often of late. His tenure as principal coincided with all four of her high school years, too, and she absolutely loved the man.

We had heard he’d been feeling poorly. And then the message came that his dialysis wasn’t doing what dialysis is supposed to do. And not long after, he decided home hospice was the best way to go where he was going.

So, today’s call was not all that unexpected. But it doesn’t make the news any easier to hear.

I want to be happy for him, I do. What he’s always believed and taught us—that today would be the happiest moment of his existence—well, it doesn’t feel that way to me.

A month or so after those introductions at the lake—and I can’t believe we did this—three buddies and I spontaneously decided we would crash his apartment one Saturday evening. We hardly knew the man, but we showed up, knocked on his door, and asked if we could watch college football with him.

Though we were uninvited—and probably unwelcome—he opened his home and his refrigerator to four teenage boys without any better sense on a weekend when I’m guessing he would have much preferred some teen-free moments of peace.

We laughed and teased and learned a little more about each other. I treasure it still.

My unwritten note would thank him for tolerating us that way. And thank him for loving us that way.

I think it’s sad that such could never happen today.

There have been more than a few bad guys who wore the same collar and took the same vows; they took advantage of kids like us and put an end to the possibility that those sorts of evenings might be enjoyed.

What remains are precious few occasions where priests and kids, principals and students, are allowed to see more of each other than what they encounter in a school hallway or discern from a Sunday homily.

I would thank him for being one of the good guys, one of the good priests, one of the role models that so many—like us—have needed. My admiration will be eternal.

After graduation, we were all off and gone, all to our respective colleges and careers.

And time and distance did what they do.

Fifty-plus years later, our retirement presented my wife and me an opportunity we have cherished. We’ve been able to share some every-now-and-again meals with him, and I cannot tell you how refreshing those evenings have been for my soul.

Throughout those 50 years, I had loosely kept track of where he had been assigned. But I discovered that wasn’t exactly true of him.

Instead, I learned he had followed my career, our family, read my columns, and more importantly, prayed for our success. And I know I’m not the only former student for whom that is true.

My grief will be widely shared this day.

He’s been gone less than 24 hours, and the social media posts have poured in: “The best around . . . would always remember your name, say hello, and ask how you were that day.” (I told you the man had a gift.)    “I am so sorry to hear this sad news. This man was, without question, one of the best.” “Such a class act!” “Without Father Connor in my life, it wouldn’t be so blessed. Thank you, Father.” “Prayers for Father Conner! I loved him.”

You can’t be principal anywhere for a day—much less multiple years—and think you won’t make folks angry—students, parents, teachers, somebody.

Through the recent years we talked about students we’ve had to expel, teachers we’ve had to move along, tuition we’ve had to collect.

The man wasn’t without fault, but in spite of those tough days, I’ve never heard anyone speak unkindly of him. So, I would thank him for showing me the way to lead others—with humanity and empathy and truly feeling their lives and trials matter as much as your own—traits we could all emulate.

His obituary will describe a priest who did a little of everything in the Church. Except be the bishop (or cardinal) so many of us knew he could be. And should be.

Lastly, I will thank him for not doing whatever he didn’t do so no one ever called him to those roles. He would have had to move and would have been busier and we’d have seen less of each other.

Mostly, we would have been denied the impact he has had on our lives.

He was a humble man of God who made us better human beings. I wish I had told him just that.

Rest in peace, Father, and know you are already missed.

Dear God —It’s not exactly your job, but will you please make sure he sees this? I let too many chances get away. Amen.


George Valadie is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church in Chattanooga.

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