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Terry O’Connor A Life of Service

 Stouffville resident Dr. Arthur Terence “Terry” O’Connor was inducted into the Ontario Agricultural Hall of Fame in June 2021. This was quite an honour, as only 240 individuals have been inducted over the past 41 years, gleaning 100 years of achievements. To be considered for nomination, one must be viewed as a leader in the growth and development of Ontario’s agriculture and agri-food industry.

Unfortunately, Terry O’Connor passed away June 19, 2019 – two years before the induction. It would not have mattered, “Terry was not one who wanted to share the public light. He was a down-to-earth goodguy,” said Brian Reynolds, long-time friend,and Musselman’s Lake resident. 

Terry passed suddenly, only 3 weeks after his wife, Colleen, partner of 61 years, passed. “Terry and I had coffee several times a month, but one day our mutual friend Murray Empringham asked if I had seen Terry recently, indicating that his health may be diminishing,” said Brian. “I found him in the Newmarket hospital, one of his daughters and a granddaughter were there. Terry was tired. I grabbed his hand and said goodbye. He died the next day,” said Brian. 

After Terry’s passing, a group of mutual friends developed a plan to honour his achievements and community giving. Brian Reynolds, Murray Empringham, Arthur Schickedanz, Gavin Valentine, Gerald Kellington, Rod King, and Jeff Steiner regularly met to develop a plan forward. They started gathering all the tidbits regarding Terry’s life and contributions. “It was difficult,” said Brian, “as his wife had passed along with many of their friends. However, we found a surviving member of the team at OMAFRA, who was very helpful in outlining Terry’s achievements.” Brian called in a favor with James Rusk, a retired Globe & Mail writer, to help write the final application for the induction.

The Inductee papers provide insight into many of Terry’s achievements: “Dr. Terry O’Connor operated a successful veterinary practice with his brother Denis in Stouffville for over 25 years, establishing firm credentials as a caring and capable veterinarian. He then became the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food’s (OMAFRA) Regional Veterinarian and Program Manager for Livestock Regulatory Programs from 1985-97. It was during this period, that he made substantial contributions to Ontario’s beef and swine industries… He also played a significant role in the emerging field of animal welfare… He was driven by the importance of developing standards of animal care and a positive image for the beef industry… Dr. O’Connor also played a key role in developing safe deadstock disposal alternatives for the swine industry…” 

The papers continue: “Another area in which Terry made a major contribution was in his work bridging the rural/urban divide. These included his years on the Markham Fair Board where he was integral in the establishment of Old MacDonald’s Farm. This unique display connects urbanites to livestock agriculture. Terry was also involved in the ‘Markham Pizza Project’ that educated school children about the production of pizza ingredients. From 1998 to 2019, he developed “Growing Projects” through the York Soil and Crop Association to sell the crops to support the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. These projects have already raised over $2 million in York Region that was matched 4:1 by the federal government.

In an induction video, included within the Hall of Fame website, Terry’s brother, Dr. Denis O’Connor said, “Terry realized that you need to do some things better. Terry devised a system of composting dead cattle stock that turned out to be a real boon to Ontario agriculture… It was Terry’s real keen interest in helping other people that kept driving him.”

Terry graduated from Veterinary College at the University of Guelph in 1958, and he, with his brother Denis, managed the thriving Stouffville Veterinary Clinic for decades. It appears that he married Colleen (Kenny) in that same year. “Colleen looked after the home, the kids, and participated in the Catholic Women’s League,” recalled long-time family friend, Paul Hulshof. “Colleen and Terry raised seven beautiful kids. She was also Terry’s right-hand person, taking calls for sick animals and operating a home-based animal hospital when needed.” 

Terry and Colleen were a Catholic family, which meant that they were somewhat isolated in Stouffville. There was no Catholic church or Catholic school in those days, being mostly a Protestant town. “I knew them since I was a kid,” said Arthur Schickedanz, “Stouffville was a rural farm community, every road back then except Highway 48 was gravel. The closest Catholic church was St. Patrick’s Parish in Markham – all the way down to Highway 7.” 

Terry took part in local discussions about the need for a Catholic school in town. The plans came to fruition with plans being laid for a future St. Mark School. Terry was to serve the new local school board, along with Dr. Denis O’Connor, Jack McDermott, Bill Kamps, Robert Carey and Don Gibson. Joan Kamps later served as board secretary. Editor of the Tribune, Jim Thomas, captured Terry saying, “Joan was a key to our success.” While Colleen O’Connor inserted that, “She did almost everything.”

Plans for the new separate school put public school projects on hold. Summitview and Orchard Park were filling to capacity, but the public board decided to park any expansion plans, while the new school was being built. Work on the $170,000, 6-room separate school began in June 1965, with three qualified teachers and a principal having signed contracts. However, because of adverse weather and a late start, the new school was not ready for September; instead, the lower grade children were accommodated temporarily in the Masonic Hall, and upper grades in the Legion Hall. Terry had reported that, “Both organizations helped us greatly.” 

132 students “attended” St. Mark Separate School that first year. St. Mark was officially opened and dedicated during a ceremony in June 1966. Terry was the Board Chairman at the time. A Village of Stouffville Reeve, Ken Laushway, spoke at the ceremony. Representatives of every school board in the area were present, including Principal Mercer (Stouffville District HS), Principal Boadway (Summitview PS), and Principal Sutherland (Orchard Park PS). 

Jim Thomas summarized the school’s opening ceremony in the Tribune: “Whether Catholic or Protestant, [they] must surely have been impressed with what they saw and heard.” For several months, Terry volunteered as St. Mark’s janitor, with a workplace in the boiler room.

The Thomas family and O’Connor family were neighbours on Glad Park for nearly ten years. Jim recalls, “Terry was the kind of neighbour that would do anything for you. I remember when our dog Rolph wandered, like beagles do, and got hit by a car. Terry got to work right away, and hard. He performed a transfusion. But it was too late. I later got a bill for $39. You wouldn’t want to see a bill for a similar incident today,” recounted Jim. 

The O’Connor family moved from Glad Park to a small farm on Bethesda Road. Throughout his life, Terry served many community boards and committees, such as the York Federation of Agriculture, Markham Fair, Markham Stouffville Hospital, Stouffville District Credit Union, York Soil and Crop Association, Rouge Watershed Taskforce and the Musselman’s Lake Stewardship Plan Technical Working Group. He served many of these initiatives concurrently, and some he served for 10 years or more – in addition to serving with the Knights of Columbus for over 60 years. 

With MSH Hospital Board, Terry wasChair of the Agricultural FundraisingCommittee. Arthur Schickedanz recalled that Terry had, “Roped his father into major contributions (said jokingly) building the hospital – Terry was a very community-minded man. He was all about caring and sharing. A constant ‘back-bencher’ that got things done, always helping the agricultural community.” Paul Hulshof concurred, “He was never for the recognition. Terry just got it done. He had one hell of a personality.”

In later life, Terry went global with his service. From 1989-91, he volunteered with CUSO International in Nicaragua. He helped local farmers and veterinarians develop new practices. From 1998 until his death, he was a driving force behind establishing York Region’s Canadian Foodgrains Bank project, as mentioned above. “Terry looked after people in need,” said Paul. 

Terry also, in later life, liked to buy vintage tractors, restore them, and resell them. All of his friends concur, “Terry liked to tinker, and he was good at it.” 

“He was one of those guys that when you got to know him,” said Jim Thomas, “you’d never forget him.”

“It’s been an unbelievable honour to have Terry’s name inducted into this Hall of Fame,” said brother Denis O’Connor in the induction video. 

“We are deeply touched by the overwhelming response by the agricultural community. Dad’s legacy was his ability to rally people together for a cause and stopping at nothing to see it through. It was his compassion and determination that he has left us, and we are forever grateful,” said his son Mike O’Connor. “His final remark would be like he said at every meal – ‘let us not forget those less fortunate.’”

Terry and Colleen in front of their house after hosting a party for the American cousins in 2017