Gerald A. "Jerry" McConnell
May 27, 1924 - February 19, 2017
Hampton Union, Thursday, February 23, 2017
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Hampton mourns ‘a giant of a man’ -- Max Sullivan
HAMPTON — Whether advocating for local schools, launching a police tip line or sitting at the local coffee shop, Jerry McConnell touched hearts in every corner of the Hampton community.
McConnell, 92, died Sunday at the Merrimack Valley Hospice House in Haverhill, Mass. He lived in Hampton since 1957 with his wife Betty before recently going to the Haverhill hospice. He was a proud World War II combat veteran and was dedicated to serving his community as part of the Hampton Rotary Club, town Planning Board, Hampton Historical Society, Library Board of Trustees and countless other groups.
Those who remembered him this week said he was a kind man with strong convictions. Brian Warburton, a former selectman, described McConnell as a father figure and said he was "a giant of a man."
"(He was) a guy who just left such a mark. Such a great mark on me, personally, and many others," said Warburton.
Fred Rice, another former selectman close to McConnell, said he expects "the whole town will turn out for Jerry" at his wake and prayer service at Remick and Gendron funeral home Sunday. Visiting hours are set for 1 to 3 p.m., followed immediately by the service. Rice said he is disappointed he will not be able to attend.
"From the time he was a young Marine to the time he retired from all his public activity, he did everything for everyone else," said Rice.
McConnell was revered by local veterans for his participation in the Marine landing at Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. There, he and 7,000 other Marines defended a captured airfield against 30,000 Japanese, who cut off American supplies for 20 days. He told his story to Foster's Daily Democrat in 2002 about how he and his fellow Marines managed to survive. Many contracted malaria, including McConnell.
"The whole perimeter was considered front-line duty, there were no rest areas," McConnell said. "We had no food, the clothing was rotting off our bodies, we slept on the ground, and there were no buildings for shelter."
McConnell served 10 years in the Marines and was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation with Bronze Star for his actions at Guadalcanal. He wrote a book about his experiences titled "Our Survival was Open to the Gravest Doubts," which can be read online. He went on to serve 10 more years in the Air Force, but those who knew him said he primarily identified as a Marine.
"Nobody knows he was in the Air Force. Nobody," said Ralph Fatello, former American Legion Post 35 commander. "That whole Marine thing, they say the change is forever. Once a Marine, always a Marine... it was a huge part of Jerry's life."
When he came to Hampton, McConnell became heavily involved in improving his community. He helped lead an effort to pass a $26.8 million renovation and addition to Winnacunnet High School in 2003, then founded the Friends of Winnacunnet Foundation, which awards thousands of dollars in grants to WHS students and programs.
Members of the foundation reflected on his commitment to the high school after learning of his death this week.
"I just remember him being such a kind and generous-hearted person who had so much in him to give," said Linda Libbey, a member of the Friends of Winnacunnet Foundation. "He helped so many people."
McConnell also founded the Crimeline for the Hamptons tip line, which he chaired from 1994 until 2001. The Crimeline is still used by Hampton-area police departments in making arrests each year.
McConnell was active in town government, chairing campaign committees for Rice, Warburton and James Workman. He was also an avid writer, contributing as a columnist for the Hampton Union, Atlantic News and Seacoast Scene. He authored two published books in addition to the online book about Guadalcanal.
Many got to know McConnell best on mornings when they saw him at his favorite café, Caffe Fresco, as well as at Kay's Cafe when Caffe Fresco closed. Hampton Police Chief Richard Sawyer said that was how he became good friends with McConnell. A fellow Marine, he brought McConnell on a trip to Quantico, Va., to see the National Museum of the Marine Corps in 2008, spending the week in Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Sawyer was close to McConnell in his last days and said he will be missed by the community.
"He was one of those guys, always looking to do something to help," said Sawyer. "It was a tough thing. He was a great guy."