Please remember in your prayers Lawrence O’Shaughnessy, a former St. Thomas trustee and benefactor who helped establish the university’s Center for Irish Studies and founded the first Montessori school in Minnesota.
O’Shaughnessy, 96, died Sunday, Dec. 3, the last living child of Ignatius Aloysius O’Shaughnessy, a 1907 alumnus and legendary benefactor who was a trustee for 35 years.
“Scholar, educator, business executive, civic leader and philanthropist, you always have sought to improve our institutions,” stated a citation that accompanied an honorary Doctor of Laws degree conferred by St. Thomas on Lawrence O’Shaughnessy in 1996. “You have carried out your assignments with integrity, humility and grace.”
Father Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas from 1991 to 2013, said that in addition to philanthropy, he always will remember O’Shaughnessy as “a poet and an Irish gentleman.”
Born January 20, 1921, in St. Paul, O’Shaughnessy graduated from St. Thomas Academy, then located on this campus, in 1939. He attended the College of St. Thomas for two years before transferring to Yale University, where he earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1944.
O’Shaughnessy returned to St. Thomas in 1948 and taught English for two years. Among the business positions he later held was vice president of Globe Oil and Refining, Co., which his father had founded, and he evolved into what the honorary degree citation called “a true renaissance man steeped in philosophy, history, literature, poetry, music and art.”
He became an early supporter of the Irish American Cultural Institute, founded by Eoin McKiernan in 1962 and located on the St. Thomas campus for three decades. The two men became close friends through O’Shaughnessy’s service on the institute’s board and as associate editor of Eire-Ireland, the first American journal of Irish studies.
“Eoin trusted Larry and had endless admiration for him,” said Jim Rogers, director of the Center for Irish Studies at St. Thomas. “They’d get together to read Irish poetry to each other. In the early days, as the institute was just getting off the ground, Larry read page proofs for Eire-Ireland.”
Rogers said O’Shaughnessy was so highly respected in Irish political and civic circles that U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy put forward his name to become ambassador to Ireland in the 1960s. O’Shaughnessy declined the position, Rogers said, because his wife was ill at the time.
The institute chose to move to New Jersey but without O’Shaughnessy’s support. He instead financially supported the founding of the Center for Irish Studies at St. Thomas in 1996 with a gift that included the Lawrence O’Shaughnessy Award for Poetry, which is conferred every spring to a poet from Ireland or Northern Ireland. O’Shaughnessy regularly attended the award event and read poetry at it.
“Even in recent years, when Larry could not attend, I brought the winning poet to his home,” Rogers said. “Larry wanted to discuss – and read! – poetry. He and Bonnie (his wife) read poetry to each other every day.”
“At family gatherings,” Dease said, “Larry would go on reciting Irish poetry until the wee hours. He always saw himself as a teacher; that was his calling.”
O’Shaughnessy joined his father on the St. Thomas Board of Trustees in 1966 and served for 14 years. As president of the O’Shaughnessy Family Foundation from 1981 to 2004, he supported several projects at St. Thomas, including the construction of O’Shaughnessy Science Hall. He was featured in the 2009 book, 125 Years, a series of profiles on interesting and influential people in the history of St. Thomas.
He also was involved at St. Catherine University, as a trustee from 1961-1984 and as board chair from 1981-1984, and he received an honorary degree when he spoke there at commencement in 1987. He established a full-tuition scholarship in memory of his first wife Elizabeth, who died in 1989, and was named one of school’s “Centennial 100” in 2005.
O’Shaughnessy became interested in Montessori education more than 50 years ago. He formed a study group with other parents and in 1963 founded Highland Park Montessori, the first preschool program in Minnesota. He also established and was president of a foundation that started the Montessori Center of Minnesota in 1973 to train teachers.
The foundation also founded Lake Country School in Minneapolis, where O’Shaughnessy spent many years in the classroom teaching philosophy to elementary school students. The training center today is co-located with Cornerstone Montessori School and Cornerstone Montessori Elementary School, the latter a public charter school, in St. Paul.
“Dad had read a book about Montessori,” said his daughter Molly O’Shaughnessy, who has devoted her professional career to Montessori education. “He was always interested in education. He was an outside-the-box thinker and innovator. He found it really intriguing there was a method where children actually taught themselves.”
She recalled how she, too, became intrigued by Montessori.
“I asked him, ‘Tell me about Montessori,’ and he told me, ‘Why don’t you do some research on it?’ ” she said. “I did during a J-Term at Macalester and I fell in love with the concept.” Today, she is president and director of primary training for the Montessori Center of Minnesota.
McKiernan once had a simple explanation for his friend’s generous character.
“It is in your blood,” the honorary degree citation stated. “He (McKiernan) tells the story of Guaire, an O’Shaughnessy ancestor who centuries ago was a local ruler near Galway in the west or Ireland. Folklore has it that Guaire’s right arm was longer than his left because he was so accustomed to giving to others. ‘You can say the same about Larry,’ McKiernan said. ‘His is a living tradition.’ ”
O’Shaughnessy’s survivors include his wife Bonnie; five children, Eileen, Terry, Molly, Larry Jr. and Jim; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Elizabeth; a daughter, Lael; and his parents, I.A. and Lillian.
A Mass of Christian Burial was at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas on the St. Thomas campus. Visitation was from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, at O’Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home, 575 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul.