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The Daily Tar Heel

Seasoned professor Paul O'Connor retires after 42 years in journalism

Paul T. O'Connor. Photo courtesy of O'Connor.

After a 42-year-long career in journalism as a reporter and professor, Paul O’Connor announced his retirement.  

From a young age, O’Connor had always taken an interest in current events. He grew up in the 1960s, amidst the anti-war movement, the women's movement and the beginning of the environmental movement. His family's involvement in public service, and the news he observed around him, developed his future career of public service. 

“It fascinated me,” O’Connor said. “I consider myself a very patriotic American. Not in the sense that flag-wavers do, but I think we all have our role in building a successful society. I think that journalism done well, in protecting our freedom and our democracy, is essential. I see it as my civic-calling.” 

After graduating with a master's in journalism from the University of Minnesota, he worked for small newspapers in Wisconsin and North Carolina. Later, O’Connor was hired by a future MJ-school professor Michael Yopp, the managing editor of the Raleigh Times, a former-division of the News and Observer. Despite spelling Yopp's name wrong on a thank you letter with his application, O’Connor began covering state politics. 

When O’Connor left the Raleigh Times in 1982, he began to publish political columns, which appeared in multiple newspapers across the state. In 1988, he was offered a position as an adjunct with the UNC School of Media and Journalism, where he would teach MEJO 153, formerly known as 53, in the evenings after working as a political reporter during the day. 

He was promoted to his present-day position as a permanent part-time lecturer in 1993. He has taught various opinion writing courses and advanced reporting classes. He has also taught a legislative reporting course every-other-year, where he taught Erica Perel, the general manager of The Daily Tar Heel. 

“I was demanding the way editors were demanding," O'Connor said. "I tried to push kids as much as I could, but I tried to be encouraging.” 

Dedicated to the success of his students, O’Connor said he stays in contact with his former students and appreciates seeing their careers' progress. 

“The absolute best thing — and I think every teacher at UNC will give you the same answer — it’s the students,” he said.

Junior David Fee is enrolled in O’Connor’s Introduction to Public Affairs Reporting course. 

“He’s definitely humorous, he always engages everyone in the classroom by assigning roles," Fee said. “For instance, he incorporates scenarios, based on his experiences working in the field. I really like how he’s got an in-depth knowledge of reporting in North Carolina, especially state politics.” 

Dean of the MJ-school, Susan King, said that O’Connor’s continuation of his journalistic career outside of the school is a defining characteristic of what he brings to the classroom. 

“I think he has really taught students the importance of being a journalist. He brings a lot of passion for the role of a journalist, and I also think he’s turned decent writers into a lot better writers,” King said. “He has shared that passion with many students, the impact journalism has upon their time, their society and their community. He really shares that palatable desire to go out and cover a story. And I think it’s contagious.” 

With many years of 8 a.m. classes behind him, O’Connor wishes to use his retirement to travel and pursue a personal project, inspired by his course on writing family stories. 

As of now, he does not plan on publishing it to the public, but will share it with family members upon its completion.

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