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This New Host

Starting with a question about wallpaper, Kevin O'Connor '90 has built a career as the star of the original home improvement series, This Old House.

By Maria Healey

Kevin O'Connor '90Kevin 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 nationwide.

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 hours."

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 each morning."

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 as host.

"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.


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