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Convocation Keynote Speaker Highlights Jim O’Connell’s Life and Impact

In the minutes leading up to 6 p.m. on Thursday night, herds of freshmen gathered on Linden Lane, readying to march down the street and head to Conte Forum for the 2023 Freshman Convocation. 

After they arrived, author and convocation speaker Tracy Kidder asked the assembled freshmen to imagine themselves in the shoes of the many homeless people living in Boston.

“How, for instance, can you keep yourself clean in a city that has almost no public bathrooms?” Kidder asked. “Such deficits can make some homeless people seem incurably primitive or even alien, but that’s only if we see them from the corners of our eyes.”

Kidder, the author of Rough Sleepers: Dr. Jim O’Connell’s Urgent Mission to Bring Healing to Homeless People, also spoke on behalf of Jim O’Connell, who was unable to attend due to health reasons. 

“I want to separate that there was supposed to be someone else here with me, the main character in the book that I’ve written, Dr. Jim O’Connell,” Kidder said. “He is ill in the hospital.”

O’Connell not only serves as the president of Boston Health Care for the Homeless, but he also established the nation’s first medical respite program in 1985 and created the nation’s first digital medical record for a homeless program, according to BHCHP’s website

Kidder then began to discuss the life of O’Connell and the journey he took to become a doctor. 

“He was a gifted working class kid, got one B in his four years at Notre Dame,” Kidder said. “It took him about 10 years to sift through all the various opportunities that he had, and he decided on medicine.” 

O’Connell wanted to attend the University of Vermont for medical school, but the school thought  he was too old to be a doctor at age 30, believing he would not have sufficient stamina, according to Kidder. 

“So he settled for Harvard Medical School and went on to receive his residency at the Massachusetts General Hospital,” Kidder said. 

Before beginning his fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, two Massachusetts General doctors asked O’Connell to interrupt his training and spend a year helping create a health care system for Boston’s homeless people. 

“Jimmy didn’t want to make that detour in his career,” Kidder said. “He didn’t have time to go … He accepted it because he thought he couldn’t refuse.” 

O’Connell went on to serve the homeless community for 35 years, eventually founding and becoming the president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program. 

“It has become a model of what can be done to alleviate suffering among the city’s poorest people, ” Kidder said. “The program serves about 11,000 homeless people a year, offering them a wide array of services, filling prescriptions—about 1,500 a day—fixing teeth and making dentures.” 

Kidder concluded his convocation address with advice to students on how to break out of the bubble at BC and help the homeless community in Boston. 

“The biggest thing that Jim would say … would be talk to them, look at them, smile at them,” Kidder said. “We can even estimate that is the biggest devastating problem homeless people suffer from, which is the sheer loneliness of their condition and that they’re just invisible for so many of us.” 

September 8, 2023