Starting with a question about wallpaper,
Kevin O'Connor '90 has built a career as the star of the
original home improvement series, This
Kevin O'Connor '90 remembers a specific moment
during his second year on Mount St. James. While attending
a class on Chaucer, he recalls drifting off for a second,
staring out the classroom window, and watching the construction
of Stein Hall.
"I'll never forget watching the cranes haul
the steel up - and suddenly being called on by my professor
in the midst of my daydream - with no idea where we were
in the class," says O'Connor. "I was enraptured
by the building of Stein."
O'Connor should know a good building, and these days
he's almost daydreaming for a living. This March, he
finished his first season as the new host of This Old
House (TOH) - the highest-rated home improvement
series on broadcast television - and Ask This Old
House, a companion series, during which the crew responds
to homeowners' everyday household challenges by making House calls
Created in 1979 by executive producer/director Russ Morash, TOH was
the first series to introduce the concept of a "how-to" show
to television. The program features four expert craftsmen - master
carpenter Norm Abram, general contractor Tom Silva, plumbing
and heating expert Richard Trethewey and landscape contractor
Roger Cook - with Kevin, as host, assisting homeowners
in renovation projects, with an eye to preserving original
architecture and craftsmanship. One of the highest-rated
ongoing PBS programs, the series currently reaches 4.2 million
PBS viewers weekly. Wrapping up its second season, Ask
TOH reaches more than 3.8 million weekly PBS viewers.
O'Connor's participation in the show came by
way of enthusiasm for home renovation and a good question.
Last October, he and his wife, Kathleen, bought a two-family
fixer-upper on Boston's North Shore - an 1894 Queen
Anne Victorian. After weeks of struggling to remove five
layers of wallpaper, the O'Connors sent an e-mail describing
the problem to Ask TOH. Out of thousands of inquiries, Ask
TOH chose the O'Connors' topical dilemma
and called to let them know that the crew would be happy
to film a segment of the show at their home.
"It was a great day for us," says O'Connor,
who has been a longtime fan of the series. "Tom Silva,
the general contractor, and Jim Clark, the painting expert,
came out - along with Russ Morash. Here they were in
our house, trying to solve our wallpaper problem, and every
break we took I would grab Tom Silva by the elbow and drag
him around the house: 'What do I do with the bathroom? … This
door? … That window?' I just pestered him for
In retrospect, it was this spirited curiosity - and
camaraderie with the TOH team - that got O'Connor
noticed as a possible replacement for the show's retiring
host, Steve Thomas. As O'Connor points out, TOH doesn't
need another expert. Silva, Abram, Trethewey and Cook are
all masters in their fields. The host serves "as a
proxy for the viewers," says O'Connor. "I'm
the one who asks the questions and gets the information out
of these guys."
A genuine interest in building, renovation and restoration
is key, and there are traces of it in O'Connor's
life. His father, David, is a civil engineer, and Kevin worked
summer jobs on his father's sites.
"The stuff I was doing was far from skilled labor," says
O'Connor. "But I had an affinity for it and understood
how the job sites worked. I know just enough about tools
to get myself in trouble … but a little bit of education
means your questions are more on point."
Segments of TOH begin with strolls on the job site
without a script. The shows are "real 'back and
forths' between me and the director and Tom, Roger,
Richard and Norm," says O'Connor. "They
ask me, 'What do you see?' More often than not
we end up filming whatever problems the site presents us
At Holy Cross, there is no major for "curious enthusiast," but
if there were, O'Connor would have been a prime candidate.
If the College prepared him for this role in any way, it
was not with any one class or course of study but rather
with the school's "overall adherence to a liberal
arts education," he says - "exposure to lots
of different things - this honoring of a generalist."
During one of his earliest meetings with the TOH executive
producer - and before O'Connor even knew why they
were asking him to take screen tests - Morash described
what he was looking for in a host for the show.
"He said, 'I want someone who's got a
pile of books next to his bed'," O'Connor
says. "'Not someone who's reading six finance
books, or six history books, or five non-fiction books. I
want to see six different types of books.'"
Beside his bed at the time, O'Connor had a novel his
wife had given him: David McCullough's biography of
John Adams; and a copy of Lend Me Your Ears, an
anthology of great speeches, edited by William Safire. And
now there are books about architecture.
"His characterization of the position is what I would
consider the characterization of a liberal arts education," O'Connor
says. "An understanding that, while you may know a
lot, there is a lot you don't know. And you can continue
the pursuit of this education.
As a first-year student, O'Connor enrolled as a
math major. He remembers struggling through "analysis" and
the professor, Peter Perkins, encouraging him to take classes
outside the department. O'Connor ended up taking
as many of John Anderson's American history classes
as he could and, eventually, majored in history - though
he still took economics and science classes. He was working
in the sports finance group of Fleet Bank's corporate
lending division when TOH offered him the position
"You need that type of direction at a young age," he
says. "You need someone to tell you, 'Open
your eyes. Look around. Try something new.' Holy
Cross did a great job of forcing that notion on me."
He also made his strongest relationships at the college - roommates
and hall mates from the first floor of Mulledy residence
hall - Dennis Cronin, Pat Shea, Brian McMillin, Michael
McDermott, Andrew Bartolini, Tim Caffrey, Matt Roy, Matt
Cox and Joe Saab.
"Holy Cross sends out a letter to each incoming
student informing you of your roommate and your room," O'Connor
says. "Those letters went out when we were 18 years
old. And here we are 14 years later. We see each other
every weekend. We get together every fall for a Holy Cross
golf outing and every Thanksgiving for a Holy Cross Thanksgiving.
We've gone to each other's weddings and christenings.
It's a Holy Cross lineage, and it ties me back to
the school more than anything else."
And from his recent vantage point as the host of TOH and Ask
TOH, as well as a budding student of architecture,
O'Connor praises the campus as an "an oasis in Worcester."
"The style is very consistent and true," he
says. "They've done a good job preserving the
architectural style of original buildings like Fenwick
Hall and O'Kane Hall."
With the recent wrap of a TOH project in Bermuda,
where the team worked with local craftsmen to renovate
a 200-year-old Georgian-style house of stone construction,
O'Connor finished his first year as host. The next
season will mark the show's 25th anniversary, and the crew
plans to celebrate by buying its own historical property - a
classic New England house in the Boston area. They will
restore and renovate with an eye on the future, incorporating
the "latest and greatest technology in building." When
the TOH home is finished, it will be sold, with
proceeds going toward a building arts scholarship.
"It's a great job," says O'Connor,
whose suits from his days at Fleet are collecting dust. "I'm
having a blast."
(The New This Old House Hour airs exclusively
on PBS, on Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET; check your local listings.)
Maria Healey is a freelance writer from
Northampton , Mass.