Scott Marks 4:26 p.m., May 21
Did genes condemn O'Connor to gambling compulsion?
Late father of ex-San Diego mayor brought down by $1 billion in gambling debts was celebrated San Diego bookie
Jerome O'Connor was laid to rest in September 1992 at the age of 87, followed just thirteen days later by his wife Frances Shinnick O'Connor, 78. St. Vincent's Catholic Church in Mission Hills overflowed with mourners, including their daughter, Maureen, then the mayor of San Diego.
"Sunday papa danced the Irish jig at the foot of mama's bed, cheering...'Come dance with me, Frances,'" read a memorial note cited in a Union-Tribune account of Frances's funeral.
Monsignor Francis Pattison told the mourners: "As you know only too well, what Jerome wants, Jerome gets. And Jerome wanted his wife of 54 years in heaven with him in eternity."
"13 vases - one for each child - filled with white roses lined the steps of the altar at St. Vincent’s," said the newspaper.
There were twelve surviving sons and daughters - Patrick, Michael, Timothy, Thomas, Shawn, Sharon, Diane, Colleen, Sheila, Karen, and the twins, Mavourneen and Maureen.
The thirteenth, Dennis, had died in 1961, after being stabbed at the Campus Drive-in.
Those who saw Jerome during his later days as an elderly, watery-eyed downtown court watcher would hardly have suspected the rough and tumble life he had led: boxer, liquor store owner, night club proprietor, Del Mar track denizen, swimming coach, and legendary bookie.
Wrote the L.A. Times in 1992:
During the 1940s, O'Connor owned a downtown nightspot, the Cobra Club, that featured big-band music. Later, he owned and ran liquor stores downtown and in Point Loma.
In the mid-1950s, Jerome achieved national notoriety when a Sunday newspaper supplement ran a feature on the swimming team he had created with his daughters, including Maureen:
When the O'Connor family was featured on the cover of Parade magazine in 1956, Frances O'Connor told the reporter that she and her husband "may not be rich in things like cars and clothes . . . but we are rich in children."
Jerome O'Connor heartily agreed. And it was a wealth he was not prepared to lose. Though O'Connor did not swim, he taught all his children to be strong swimmers after daughter Maureen almost drowned during an outing at the beach.
At their father's urging, the seven O'Connor sisters became proficient precision swimmers, winning more than 1,000 individual and team medals and trophies. In the fall of 1964, O'Connor coached what had become known as the "Swimming O'Connor Sisters."
Years before, at the smoky Dreamland Arena, O'Connor, billed as "Kid Jerome," whipped featherweight Young Barney Meyers, according to what Meyers told the U-T in 1990. Jerome’s career as a bookie was equally as fabled, as was his constant presence during racing season at the Del Mar track, where he mixed it up with handicappers and gamblers of national repute.
But though Jerome was a local icon to gamblers and the city’s south-of-Broadway nightclub set, the O'Connors and their children led a hardscrabble life.
Said the Times:
The family was never hungry, but at times they longed for more food. One Thanksgiving when they couldn't afford a turkey, one of the O'Connor boys molded hamburger meat into the traditional bird.
Indeed, O'Connor told his children that he wouldn't heat the house because he feared it would spark a fire. But some of his children believed that their father was simply trying to scrimp so he could better afford other essentials for the family.
"You learned how to sleep with a blanket between your knees so no one could steal it from you," Mayor O'Connor once recalled.
Maureen, born with her twin on July 14, 1946, graduated from Rosary High and went on to San Diego State, where she majored in recreation, psychology, and sociology, according to a 1989 profile by L.A. Times reporter Barry Horstman.
Getting her degree in 1970, she went to work as a gym teacher at Rosary. In 1971, in the wake of the city’s infamous Yellow Cab scandal, O'Connor ran for city council as a reformer, backed by a group of students she dubbed the "Maureen Corps," and at 25 became the youngest person ever elected to the council here.
O'Connor reportedly met her future husband, Jack in the Box founder Robert O. Peterson, on the campaign trail. He was 55. Peterson and his partner, Dick Silberman, were looking to greatly expand their influence in the city. The corrupt old Republican guard, led by banker C. Arnholdt Smith, would soon be brought down in scandal, clearing the way for the self-styled Young Turks to take command.
The power trio would later form an alliance with the late Helen Copley, who had inherited the Union-Tribune from her husband James on his death in 1973. Republican Copley backed Democrat O'Connor's campaign against the GOP's Roger Hedgecock in 1983.
In the spring of 1983, Copley editors girded for battle. Their enemy: Roger Hedgecock, a self-styled progressive Republican who cast himself several degrees to the left of [Pete] Wilson. He had assembled a battle-ready campaign force, run by young aide-de-camp Tom Shepard. Campaign contributors included J. David Dominelli, a remarkably successful La Jolla–based financial guru who claimed to be making making millions of dollars for his investors through mysterious foreign currency trades.
Heavily backed by Dominelli and wealthy La Jolla real estate developer Douglas Manchester - now publisher of U-T San Diego - Hedgecock beat O’Connor, only to be forced from office by criminal charges lodged by Democratic District Attorney Ed Miller, an O’Connor ally, following the financial collapse of Dominelli's Ponzi scheme. That opened the way for O'Connor's comeback mayoral victory over the late Bill Cleator, then a city councilman, in 1986.
Noted the Times:
When then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock was convicted of perjury and conspiracy in 1985, Jerome O'Connor was outside the courtroom. Realizing that Hedgecock would be removed from office, he immediately predicted to reporters that his daughter would run for mayor and win.
Yesterday, O’Connor reached a deal with federal prosecutors in which she admitted to stealing from her late husband’s foundation to feed a billion dollar gambling habit.
Her reported vice of choice: video poker.