DOWNTOWN — Mary Alice O’Connor, the former school board member and volunteer whose service began during World War II and grew into leadership positions in the Tournament of Roses, Friends of the Burbank Library and the Burbank Historical Society, died early Saturday. She was 93.
Mary Alice O’Connor passed away peacefully at her home, according to her family. Dozens of well wishers visited in the days leading up to her passing, retelling stories about her life and the lessons they learned over the years.
“It made for an extraordinary surrounding. A wash of love, peacefulness and believing in yourself came over us all,” said her daughter, Joan Patricia “J.P.” O’Connor. “As much as we were there to comfort her in those days, we were also learning and comforting each other.”
Mary Alice O’Connor served on the Burbank Unified School District Board of Education from 1961 to 1971, and later was instrumental in reopening the Starlight Bowl in 1992. Throughout that time she sold tickets to the Hollywood Bowl, introducing children and teens to classical music as the first chairwoman of the Children’s Open House.
For decades, it seemed, nothing happened to service organizations without the guiding hand of Mary Alice O’Connor, regarded as the matriarch of local nonprofits and social organizations. J.P. O’Connor said that while “volunteer” is listed in labor codes as a job category, it is defined as “uncompensated worker.”
“Mom would disagree,” said J.P O’Connor. “The compensation she’s gotten through all the years are so many wonderful friends and experiences.”
The mother and daughter duo were honored as Burbank’s Women of the Year in 2002 by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) along with eight other women from the district.
Mary Alice O’Connor continued to serve throughout the decade on boards of the Burbank Health Care Foundation and the Family Service Agency of Burbank, with memberships on the La Providencia Guild of Childrens Hospital, KCET Women’s Council, Civic Pride Committee, National Charity League Burbank Chapter and the Burbank YWCA.
Born in Berkeley, Mary Alice O’Connor attended girls’ schools in the Bay Area and Sacramento when her mother served as a special assistant to Gov. C. C. Young. Her interest in community involvement, education and business developed through conversations with friend Irving Martin, publisher of the Stockton Record.
He introduced her to movers and shakers in the state who met weekly at the Crystal Palace Hotel in San Francisco. The family moved to Los Angeles her senior year of high school when her father took a faculty appointment at Los Angeles City College. Mary Alice O’Connor enrolled at Hollywood High School, becoming president of the female students and creating a Shakespeare Garden.
After receiving her associate’s degree from Los Angeles City College, she held a series of jobs despite the challenges of the Great Depression and the start of World War II. They included stints at Douglas Ranch Camps, Pebble Beach forest near Del Monte Lodge and summer assignments at a camp newsletter.
She met A. Kendall O’Connor when he was invited for tea by her family. When he left she announced to the room that he would become her husband. She went on to marry the art director and layout man in 1944 and that February relocated with him to Burbank to be close to Walt Disney Co. headquarters.
The pair spent their honeymoon decorating and working side-by-side on photographs in the darkroom. With gas rations in full effect, he walked to work and she rode her bicycle to local stores.
Honored as a Walt Disney Legend, Kendall O’Connor contributed to more than 100 shorts and 15 feature films. His wife became the inspiration for the Fairy Godmother character in the animated Disney version of “Cinderella.”
Meanwhile, she also became the first woman on the boards of Burbank Community Hospital and Providence St. Joseph’s Medical Center, which was founded about the time she arrived in Burbank.
With the birth of her children, John and J.P., Mary Alice O’Connor began devoting more time to the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and parent-teacher associations, where she would log more than 16 years of service. She once said she preferred serving as vice president rather than president because it gave her more of an opportunity to plan programs and activities.
In 2006 she told the Burbank Leader that among her proudest contributions was resurrecting the Starlight Bowl, an idea she posed to City Manager Mary Alvord while working with the Burbank symphony. She was also recognized at the White House by President Ford as an outstanding volunteer.
“To be a volunteer, I find that you have so many great opportunities to do things — if you go about it graciously,” Mary Alice O’Connor told a standing-room-only crowd packed into City Council Chambers in honor of her volunteer career.
A year later, the long-awaited Mary Alice O’Connor Family Center began offering educational-enrichment programs and child care for children between six weeks to 5 years old.
The center last year won accreditation by the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children. The center at 401 N. Buena Vista St. is operated by Children’s Creative Learning Center.
“Children and the youth of our community have always been a high priority for me and their safety, education and fulfillment are paramount,” Mary Alice O’Connor wrote to family.
A celebration of the life and lessons of Mary Alice O’Connor at First Presbyterian Church of Burbank is being planned by the family. It will be followed by a cookie party and tea, combining two of her great passions.