Penn confers posthumous Ph.D. to Vietnam War vet

O'Conner Family

Brian O'Connor

The O’Connor family in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1967. Fort Leavenworth is a U.S. Army post.

More than 5,000 students were conferred with graduation honors during Penn’s 257th Commencement on Monday, May 13—alums from all walks of life across the globe. One valiant graduate was missing from the ceremony, but his presence was felt throughout the historic tiers of Franklin Field.

Lt. Col. Mortimer O’Connor gave his life for his country during the Vietnam War and at Commencement, he was awarded a posthumous Ph.D.

A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he excelled in English and wrote for the student newspaper, O’Connor enrolled in Penn's Department of English graduate program in the early 1960s.

The son and nephew of West Point graduates, O’Connor was being groomed for a higher command, and came to Penn to study English in preparation to teach the subject at his alma mater.

He spent a year taking graduate courses at the University, and his association with Penn could have ended there, but he caught something here, something contagious to many who spend time at the University: The academic fever.

O’Connor returned to West Point to teach, then spent a year in Korea, before coming back to Penn to finish his graduate studies. While teaching full-time in the ROTC program at Temple, O’Connor also studied full-time at Penn.

In 1962, he began work on his doctoral dissertation, a critical edition of Henry Nevil Payne’s 1675 Restoration drama, “The Siege of Constantinople: A Tragedy.”

O’Connor was at Penn for three years before his country called him to fight in Vietnam. He volunteered to serve as a battalion commander, and was killed in action on April 1, 1968.

O’Connor’s dissertation was set aside for years before, at an uncle’s suggestion, his son Brian, who lost his father when he was 11, pulled it from the basement and began reading his father’s work.

West Point O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Mortimer O’Connor at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1952.  

Brian O’Connor, who spoke at the School of Arts & Sciences’ (SAS) Commencement, said his father’s doctoral thesis, like all good scholarship, “breathed life into the past.”

“Reading his work made him come to life again,” he said.

O’Connor contacted Paul Saint-Amour, graduate chair in the Department of English, and told him of his father’s story. He requested information about records from his father’s Penn days, sent Saint-Amour PDFs of his father’s dissertation, and inquired about the possibility of his father receiving a posthumous degree.

Saint-Amour asked the English Department’s Graduate Executive Committee to look over the materials to see if the dissertation was complete enough to request a posthumous degree.

After carefully reading through O’Connor’s work, the committee determined that the dissertation was about 85 to 90 percent complete.

“All in all, it looked as if it was nearing completion, therefore, we decided to propose the posthumous degree,” Saint-Amour says.

The committee discussed the topic with Ralph Rosen, SAS associate dean for graduate studies, SAS Dean Rebecca Bushnell, and Provost Vincent Price, who all approved.

Saint-Amour, who also spoke at SAS Commencement, noted in his remarks that O’Connor was “unaided by GoogleBooks and other digital tools,” and had to travel to archives, request microfilm and thermofax copies, and sometimes “lay his own siege to the fortress of Interlibrary Loan.”

O’Connor’s dissertation contained a complete edition of Payne’s play, and he had collated a number of different versions.

“He had gone through and made a series of editorial decisions to produce essentially a critical edition of the play, which is, in fact, still not in print, to my knowledge,” Saint-Amour says. “So this would have been the first modern edition of the play.”

Brian O'Conner

Brian O'Connor

Brian O’Connor with his father at a West Point lacrosse game in 1962.

At SAS Commencement, O’Connor was awarded a Ph.D—In Faculty, which restores a scholar to what would have been his or her class. He is officially a graduate of the Class of 1968.

Brian O’Connor says around 20 family members attended the ceremony. He says his father—a man who loved life—“would have been so happy” to receive his degree.

“My mother too,” he says. “Sunday was Mother’s Day. I can’t imagine a better two days for children who loved their parents as much as we did, to honor my mother on Sunday, and then to gather on Monday to honor my father.

“It was a great ceremony at a great university,” he adds. “It was so heartwarming to stand up there in front of the audience and see newly minted Ph.Ds. with tears rolling down their cheeks and standing in ovation for my dad, not only as a solider, but one of their ranks: A scholar.”

Originally published on May 16, 2013