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Couple Looks Back on a ‘Real Gem’ of an Education

Tom O'Connor '77, '80 and his wife, Diane Lamprey O'Connor '84 pictured on vacation together
Tom O'Connor '77, '80 and his wife, Diane Lamprey O'Connor '84 pay forward the high-quality, affordable education they received at UMass Lowell through the O’Connor Family Endowed Scholarship Fund and the many alumni events they host at their homes.

By Geoffrey Douglas

Tom O’Connor ’77, ’80 is a retired board chairman and former CEO who climbs 20,000-foot mountains in his spare time. His wife, Diane Lamprey O’Connor ’84, a former hospice volunteer with a master’s degree in religious studies, is happiest painting watercolor landscapes and abstracts. They’ve been married 34 years—since not long after they met at a two-for-one night at an Irish pub in downtown Lawrence. As Tom is fond of saying today, “I got both a beer and a bride.”

He was 26, from Lawrence, two years past earning his master’s degree at UMass Lowell. She was 23, from North Andover, working for a Boston nonprofit and two courses short of her ULowell bachelor’s degree, which she would complete the same year they were married.

Their memories share a common thread. Both recall the tuition rates the year they enrolled—$100 a semester for Tom, $300 for business student Diane four years later—and their pride in being the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college. Tom remembers the “blessing” of a $500 state scholarship; Diane tells the stories of the little apartment she lived in next to the sub shop at the end of the University Avenue bridge, and of the jobs she worked at to keep herself afloat. “Almost everyone in those days,” she says, “worked at DeMoulas.”

The paths they’ve followed since then have widened their worlds. Tom is the retired chairman of the board and CEO of Colorado-based DCP Midstream, among the nation’s largest natural gas gathering and processing companies, and has over three decades of experience at all levels of the energy field. At one point during his 20 years with Duke Energy, where he finished as group vice president of commercial businesses, he was CEO of a division overseeing more than 18,000 miles of pipeline to 1.2 million customers.

Over the course of his career, he says, “the whole conversation about energy has changed. We’ve gone from worrying all the time about not having enough, being ‘energy poor,’ to having this huge abundance—solar, wind, natural gas—most of it homegrown and home-developed, definitely to the benefit of the country. It’s been a fascinating trend to be a part of.”

Diane, meanwhile, has pursued her own path. Following her years as a young mother to three children through the 1990s, she endured a painful time witnessing her father’s last months in hospice care. Determined to turn the experience into some public gain, she trained as a respite volunteer in Houston and continued in this role in Colorado—where the couple have lived since Tom took the job with DCP in 2007—while also organizing training for new staff and volunteers. She later earned a master’s degree in religious studies from Regis University in Denver, with a focus on aging and end-of-life studies.

“She’s a very nurturing person,” says Tom, interrupting his wife’s description of her work and studies. “That’s just her makeup; that’s just the way she is.”

Lately, painting watercolors has opened a new dimension in her life. “I’ve become a painter,” Diane says, almost as though surprised at the discovery. “And I’ve come to love it.”

“I remember that $500 scholarship I got back then, how much it meant to me.” -Tom O'Connor ’77, '80
Tom is more the risk-seeker type. Drawn to the challenge of mountains for as long as he can remember, his weekend climbs while at ULowell were pretty much limited to the Whites—“because they were there, and they were all we could afford.” These days, though, his forays are farther afield and more ambitious: The day after Christmas last year, he set off to climb Aconcagua in the Andes—at 22,841 feet, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas. Due to an illness, he failed to make the summit, as did nine of the 10 on his team—but, he says, “we all learned a lot about ourselves and the mountain.” He plans to be back this December to try again.

As much as the O’Connors’ world has widened and prospered since those days of the two-for-one beers, their memories haven’t dimmed, and their loyalties remain fixedly in place.

“ULowell was a huge opportunity for a lot of us,” says Tom, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biological science and a master’s degree in environmental studies. “There were some large personal challenges involved, but the school was small enough so there was always help if you needed it, kind of like climbing a mountain with a quality team you can count on. We got a high-quality, affordable education—a real gem—though most of us were too young to recognize it at the time.”

The O’Connors have been recognizing it now, actively, for the past 15 years—through both the O’Connor Family Endowed Scholarship Fund, which benefits students in the Kennedy College of Sciences, and the many alumni events they continue to host at their homes in Colorado and on Cape Cod. In addition, says Bob Tamarin, emeritus dean of the Kennedy College of Sciences, Tom was the founding cochair of the College’s Board of Advisors, a group of successful alumni dedicated to helping both students and faculty.

“His personal generosity and leadership were extraordinary,” says Tamarin. “Both he and Diane are absolutely wonderful people, dedicated to their family and to UMass Lowell. I’ve never worked with a finer couple.”

For Tom, recipient of the University’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2008, it all goes back to those scrape-by early days.

“I remember that $500 scholarship I got back then, how much it meant to me,” he says. “It’s a real honor, for both of us, to be able to help these kids today.”

“You wouldn’t believe some of the letters we get from these kids, thanking us,” says Diane, whose degree was in management information systems. “They’re pretty awesome. I read them, and I can see that we’re achieving exactly what we’d hoped to. It feels so good to know that.”

As for the alumni hosting, she says, “We’ve developed some very warm personal relationships, both with staff and other alumni. We’re not big-time socialites, not by a long shot. But this is important to us, and we really enjoy the people.