Nearly 50 years after leaving the University of Pennsylvania for Vietnam, Lt. Col. Mortimer Lenane O'Connor will receive a posthumous Ph.D. today in a ceremony honoring academic achievement and sacrifice on the field of battle.
My father, who set aside his dissertation to lead soldiers in war, will be included in the Class of 1968, the year he would most likely have completed his doctorate had fate not intervened.
Indeed, Lt. Col. O'Connor seemed the epitome of the warrior as the complete man:
In 1958, my dad was sent to Penn to study English in preparation for teaching at West Point. In his year at Penn, the young officer set aside the Cold War for Chaucer and refined his taste for poetry and prose.
After that teaching assignment and a year in Korea, my dad returned to Penn - living in Willingboro with Betsy and the six kids, teaching at Temple, and plodding through Ph.D. course work and research.
He studied German vocabulary flash cards late into the night, long after reading Dickens to us on the living room couch. My mother typed up his papers on a battered Smith-Corona.
He took some of the boys on summer bivouac with ROTC troops to Indiantown Gap. Quoting T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," he would intone, "This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends," as we hand-loaded rounds into mortar tubes and watched them arc into the summer sky.
An earnest regard for the arts and a grounded sense of history marked this man:
By the time ground troops were committed to Vietnam, my father's dissertation on "The Siege of Constantinople," a Henry Nevil Payne allegory of intrigue in the quasi-Catholic court of Charles II, was near completion. At its heart, the heroic tragedy was about doomed royal brothers fending off political and religious enemies. The parallel between 15th-century Byzantium and 17th-century England also eerily mirrored developments in Vietnam, where, as my father began his thesis, a Catholic regime run by brothers faced a Buddhist insurgency and treachery in the ranks.
He fell in battle, but his keen intellect would not be forgotten:
The dissertation sat unread in a battered briefcase for more than 40 years, set aside like so much of the past. Disinterred at last, it was sent to Penn, where the graduate English faculty recommended that the warrior be crowned a scholar.
No degree can change the lost years of a father's absence. But in literature, as in life, it can bring an unfinished story to a graceful conclusion. Ask Dr. O'Connor as he passes by in the Penn procession - the ghost with a sheepskin scroll and an M-16.
This man had a large and thriving family, a fertile mind valued by an Ivy League university and an endlessly bright future and he sacrificed it all for his country. We must always remember men like Dr. O'Connor as we face this generation's battle to preserve our freedom, which is threatened from forces within our very gates.
A heartfelt thank you to son O'Connor for reminding us of the Price of Liberty.