Dr. Michael O'Connor BSIE 1969, MSIE 1982, PhD ME 1986: Engineering to save lives

Madeleine Hubbard

Michael O'Connor
Michael O'Connor
As a student, Michael O’Connor remembers walking through the Illini Union and seeing National Guard troops stationed there. Although he has moved out of Champaign several times in his life, O’Connor keeps coming back. He is one of the rare people to have earned three degrees in his life, let alone three degrees from the U of I. 

In 1969, O’Connor graduated with his bachelors in Industrial Engineering, majoring in Operations Research (OR). Today OR is a focus area for research.  Although O’Connor’s wife did not attend Illinois, they met in high school and got married in 1966. 

Following graduation, O’Connor went on to work for the US Air Force as an engineer at Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Illinois. Shortly afterwards in 1971, O’Connor was transferred to Texas. 

Explaining why he chose his career path, O’Connor says, “I felt kind of a responsibility to help the government. I was draft deferred and I wasn’t going to go to Vietnam but I thought I could still help support the government by working for the air force or the army.” Although his father was in the navy during WWII, O’Connor says, “so was everybody’s father.”

National Guard Troops by the Illini Union, circa 1970, courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives
National Guard Troops by the Illini Union, circa 1970, courtesy of the University of Illinois Archives

It was in 1974 that O’Connor and his family was transferred back to Champaign. O’Connor began working for the US Army Construction Engineering Research Lab. At this point, O’Connor was working fulltime, raising a family and taking one class at a time to earn his master’s from Illinois. 

Eventually, O’Connor was able to take what he describes as a year “sabbatical from work” allowing him to take graduate-level course work full time and earn his PhD in 1986. 

By 1996, O’Connor became the director of the Construction Engineering Research Lab. In 2000 he was transferred to Vicksburg, Mississippi to the Waterways Experiment Station. Two years later, O’Connor was reassigned to Washington, DC and became the director of research and development for the US Army Corps of Engineers. Describing the Corps of Engineers, he says, “It’s a large program and critical to supporting our US military forces.” Research by the Corps includes military engineering, such as protective battlefield structures and civil engineering, like studying the impact of earthquakes on dams. 

One of the major projects conducted by a Laboratory that O’Connor oversaw was the renovation of the Pentagon. He says they, “were rehabilitating the Pentagon and putting in blast resistant windows and improved structural components in the exterior shell.” When the Pentagon was attacked on 9/11, the plane crashed between the section that had been rehabilitated with extra safety measures and a section that had not.  

O’Connor says, “The difference between how the two preformed was quite significant.” He also says that even though the renovations cost “$10,000 a window, the exterior windows that were blast and fire resistant made a big difference. There were people in offices that had been rehabilitated with hardening and these windows who survived since the fireball didn’t come through the windows. It went up and over the outer ring of the pentagon.”

Looking back on his time at Illinois, O’Connor says one of his favorite memories was his experience freshman year. He says, “It was still really impressive, the school. As an impressionable freshman, it was all somewhat awe-inspiring to walk the Quad and see the buildings and the reputation of the University.” 

He also remembers what it was like to register for classes as freshman. O’Connor says it was a “three-day ordeal” and “you’d get all your courses done but you couldn’t get the last one in and you’d have to redo the whole schedule then you’re walking from one end of the campus to the other. That was quite an ordeal.”

Arial View of Chanute Air Force Base, 1981, courtesy of the Urbana Free Library
Arial View of Chanute Air Force Base, 1981, courtesy of the Urbana Free Library
Describing how campus has changed since the 1960s, O’Connor says, “They’ve got restaurants. When I first came there was hardly any place to eat on campus town… It used to be the union and the drug store. That’s as far as campus town got.” 

O’Connor also sees how research has grown. He says there are, “so many centers that are funded at the multi-million dollar level as opposed to just individual University professors doing research with half a dozen grad students and a hundred thousand dollars.”

Both of O’Connor’s children, Kate and John, ended up studying at Illinois at one point in their lives although O’Connor’s grandchildren did not attend the U of I. Today, O’Connor lives close to the University with his wife of over 50 years and their Dalmatian. 

Giving advice to current students, O’Connor says, “Find a discipline, an area or study of work that you are very passionate about. You’ve got to like what you’re doing and be passionate about it in order to really be successful. Don’t let peer pressure force you into a curriculum that you’re really not interested in. If get in one and you find it’s not really what you want, quit.”

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