It is not an easy thing to be a wise man. Wisdom comes from knowledge, experience, judgment, accomplishment, triumph, and defeat. Wisdom comes with age. Even so, although many of us are smart, experienced, accomplished, and triumphant, we still age without wisdom. Rare indeed are those in whom we recognize wisdom at an early age; people whose sense of self transcends self interest allowing a larger view of human events.
Many knew Steve O'Connell longer and better than I. Many had the privilege of working with him on projects of great significance, struggling with the major issues of his and their time, answering the unresolvable questions that dominated public and private life during Steve O'Connell's remarkable career.
History creates the opportunities for achievement and accomplishment, but only a few contribute beyond themselves in ways that identify them as heroes for their time. Stephen C. O'Connell, from the record, is clearly one of those heroes.
We who came later, who entered the flow of events that surround this university after Steve's remarkable period of leadership closed, found a tradition and a commitment that whatever our historical judgment of the past set a standard of behavior for the future. We were not there, of course, but in living through the life of this university we hear the echoes of his words, the reflections of his work.
We envy our colleagues who shared Steve's time, even knowing the conflicts, even understanding the dramatic and powerful differences that then divided all university communities. We envy our colleagues not the controversies or the raw emotion that surrounded them, but the context of judgment and wisdom that O'Connell provided this community for that time. Would we all have agreed with his judgments? Probably not. Would we, with the accuracy of hindsight, think that we might have done it differently? Possibly. But can any of us, however proud, think we could have done it better; with a stronger sense of commitment, with a more careful use of authority, with a clearer sense of the university's interests? I think not.
When we lose an exceptional presence, and find our ordinary words incapable of providing the measure of that life, we turn instead to anecdotes, to the insignificant details of life that serve each of us as symbols of the qualities lost and the accomplishments treasured. We remember Steve O'Connell dressed formally with a Gator tie, climbing the stairs to his seat in his O'Dome to cheer on his Gators: formal, proper, loyal, and devoted to his university; correct and careful; charming and graceful; reliable and committed.
We remember the man who lived in Tallahassee, midst the Seminoles, a fiercely loyal Gator partisan, yet charming, gracious, and welcoming to all. We remember the man hosting that unusual post-game event at his farm, filled with politicians, judges, lobbyists, and university people. Some came in Orange and Blue, some in Garnet and Gold, but all on their best behavior, whatever the outcome of the game; all behaving better than they ever did anywhere else because the man's presence inspired it, demonstrated it, and required it.
We remember seeing the flash of steel within that trademark charming style when issues, people, and events where not as they should be. The legends took on substance in those moments.
In the end, of course, each of us cherishes our life's encounters with Steve O'Connell as personal treasures. We may share them with like-minded people, but for the most part we hold them privately, as permanent tokens of what it is to do it right.
Smart, wise, perceptive, and effective explain Stephen C. O'Connell's tremendous impact on his state and his time, but they do not capture the man. Few have equaled his accomplishments; none have done so with such grace. In this unruly state, Steve O'Connell's patrician elegance and informal charm magnified the power of his presence and enhanced the effectiveness of his work.
This state and nation need more like Steve O'Connell and we will see few.