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We bid a fond farewell to Mary O’Connell as she retires after 28 years at the School of Education

25 March 2021

This week, it is with fondness and a few tears that the School of Education wishes Mary O’Connell a fantastic retirement, after 28 years at the School.

This week, it is with fondness and a few tears that the School of Education wishes Mary O’Connell a fantastic retirement, after 28 years at the School.

Mary O’Connell, Senior Executive Assistant, was quizzed by the School of Education on her anecdotes and memories during her long service, and asked to share some little titbits about herself with the School in our unique Q & A ‘There’s Something About Mary…’

The whole SoE community would like to thank Mary for all her hard work, her kindness, her positive attitude, stylish flair, and for making the SoE the place to be! We wish you a long and happy retirement, let the next adventures begin!

There’s Something About Mary: Q & A Mary O’Connell

Mary O'Connell, who retires in March 2021 after 28 years of service at the SoE

What was your first day at the School of Education like?

In my previous job I was constantly reminded that they had taken a huge risk in employing someone as old as me (I was 35 when I started, 37 when I left).  When I joined the School the average age of the secretaries was around 60+, so they called me the Baby, quite a turnaround for my self-esteem!

My other memory is that the day before I started my daughter made her First Holy Communion and we had a brilliant party afterwards at the Rugby club which left me feeling rather fragile to say the least.  Luckily, my new boss Derek Goulden decided not to come in that day but sent a message saying “find your desk, get some stationery, drink some coffee and then go home”.  Between him and the lovely lady secretaries I remember thinking….this is the perfect job, I am never leaving here. 

Who are the people you remember most from your time at the School?

Firstly Derek Goulden, Project Director of the project I was supporting (Belize Primary Education Development Project -  BPEDP).  He was such a nice person, easy to work for and had loads of stories about living and working in the Caribbean and Columbia.  We used to chat for hours, it’s amazing we ever got any work done.

In 1995 Ros Sutherland joined the School and I was assigned to her as her secretary and supported her for the next 24 years up until her death in 2019.  There was always so much going on with Ros, research projects, refurbishing 35 Berkeley Sq, building a new school (the Merchants Academy in Withywood) no two days were ever the same and I never knew what she was going to throw at me.  She once asked me to track down a man she met on a train whose work she was interested in. All she could remember about him was that he got on at Nottingham, off at Bristol and was wearing a very nice pair of brown shoes.  I found him.

I still miss her so much and am always asking myself “what would Ros say to that” or “how would Ros get round that one?”  One of my favourite things she used to say was “sometimes it’s better to beg forgiveness then ask permission”.   I loved that she was always ready to find a way around a problem and not get stopped by it. 

My buddies, Sarah Brownhill (ex. Head of School p.a. who I worked with for about 14 years) and Shirley Stobart who retired a couple of years ago.  We kept each other sane by laughing at the lunacy of it all.  We are still in touch, and still laughing.

What has been the highlight(s) of your career at the SoE?

Going to Belize.  When the project was coming to an end, we (Derek, Patricia Broadfoot, Michael Crossley, Marilyn Osborn and myself) went to Belize to have final meetings with the Ministry of Education, staff at the Teacher Training College and other colleagues who had been involved in the project out there.  I visited some of the schools around the country, popped over to Guatemala to see one of our students and flew out to Caye Caulker and snorkelled off the barrier reef.  It was such a fantastic opportunity and one which I had never imagined I would have.  Not bad for a part-time secretary who had only been in the job 15 months.

The refurbishment projects.  The School looks so different now to when I started in 1993.  Being involved in that transformation, led by Ros, was so interesting and completely different to anything I had ever done before.  We took risks with our use of colour and design-led furniture, I like to think we had an influence on other UofB projects that came after ours. 

The Modern Apprentices scheme.  The UofB had very few professional services roles at the lower pay grades which made it difficult for young people to get a foot in the door.  I was the mentor for the SoE and have been proud of all the young people I supported over the years, not least of course Miss Kelly Fry who is now a long-serving member of staff. 

Mary O'Connell who is retiring after 28 years of service at the SoE

Let’s find out about you…what is your…

  • Favourite film?  Out of Africa
  • Favourite book? I like the writer Laurie Graham, my favourites are The Importance of Being Kennedy and Gone with the Windsors. 
  • Favourite tipple?  Red wine
  • Favourite dessert? Anything with chocolate, nuts and cream – but no calories.
  • Favourite place to visit? Padstow

Can you recall a funny incident / anecdote from the SoE?

Oh my word, there have been so many!  Sarah Brownhill and I always said we could write a book.  However, discretion has been a major part of this job so the book will have to wait for another 20 years.

What will you miss the most?

People coming into my office for a catch-up or down-load depending on how things are with them.  I’ve always valued that staff feel they can come and confide, share a problem, have a gossip or just  tell me what’s going on in their lives.  It’s been the best part of the job.

Who will you miss the most?

Kelly is a member of the family so she is not getting rid of me, and I know I will stay in touch with Rebecca, Sally Barnes and Mayble the same way I have stayed in touch with Shirley, they are friends as well as colleagues. 

So I think it will be the people I won’t be seeing, the people I have got to know who work on the precinct – UofB staff in Maintenance, Estates Assistants, Site Services, some of them I have known for years and have not only helped me do my job, they are like mates.  I’ll also miss popping into my favourite shops – Clifton Flowers, Vinegar Hill and The Berkeley of course.  My buddy the barman in there told me I am going to be his next wife (not sure how many have gone before if he’s planning his next?  I’ll have to find out his name for starters, oh and mention it to Mr. O’C of course!) I will miss the banter with the Boys on the desk and Bob’s red wine recommendations.  This month we are drinking Majestic Wines, 'The Guvnor'.

What’s the first thing you will do when you retire?

Throw away my business type clothes.  All the black and navy jackets and trousers. I’ve had some of them so long they are vintage.   

And finally, do you have anything you would like to say to your colleagues and friends at the SoE?

Always try and find a positive from any situation good or bad, and remember to laugh especially at yourself.  

Thank you Mary, you are one of a kind! We wish you all the very best for a wonderful retirement.

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