Marc Fawaz couldn’t help but notice the unusual dynamic between Marty O’Connor (Film'10), an MBA candidate in his marketing management class at Chapman University, and Marty’s assistant.
Marty was paralyzed from the shoulders down and couldn’t take notes or use a computer without help, so an assistant made sense.
I couldn’t have done it without her.”
But she was unusually doting, Fawaz thought, even tender.
No wonder: “Yeah, that’s my mom,” Marty, now 30, told him.
For two academic years, from 2015 to 2017, Judy O’Connor served as her son’s full-time study partner and aide — shuttling him between home and campus, pushing his wheelchair to classes, taking notes. At home, she created study guides and taped the notes to the walls of Marty’s room, so every page was within his sight.
“I couldn’t turn the pages of a book by myself,” said Marty, who’d been a member of the club snowboarding and men’s volleyball teams at CU Boulder.
After his CU graduation, Marty, originally from Anaheim, Calif., moved to Newport Beach. He worked in sales for a packaging supplier, TricorBraun, and spent a lot of weekends at the beach.
“I was living the life,” he said.
Then one hot day in August 2012, while out with friends after a long day of golf, a dehydrated and fatigued Marty stood up, lost consciousness and fell down the stairs of a fire escape behind a Newport Beach restaurant.
“I don’t remember the rest,” he said.
The fall injured Marty’s spinal cord.
His parents, then living in Tierra Verde, Fla., moved back to California to care for him. It took two years of physical therapy to tame the spasms in his legs.
In time, Marty regained strength, if not mobility, and he began to consider what to do with the rest of his life.
It wasn’t obvious at first.
“Marty was really struggling to figure out what his future was going to look like,” said Judy, a former sixth-grade teacher with a business degree from Notre Dame.
Marty had always been entrepreneurial, so she encouraged him to consider business school. He was anxious about it, but in fall 2015, he entered the MBA program at Chapman in Orange, Calif., armed with a mouth stick for operating his phone and voice recognition software on his computer.
Initially paired with a note taker, Marty saw he needed more. Judy was already helping him study. So she became his on-campus assistant, too.
For two years, she attended every one of Marty’s classes, helping with every assignment and every exam.
I did what I did out of love for my son.”
“I quickly got over that awkward feeling of going back to school with my mother,” Marty said.
Last year, with commencement on the horizon, Marty approached university officials to ask if they would consider recognizing his mother’s contribution.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” he said.
The school's leadership agreed and proceeded to make secret plans with Marty, avoiding telltale texts or emails.
“I didn’t want my mom seeing anything popping up on my phone,” said Marty.
At commencement exercises last May, Judy pushed Marty onto the stage in his wheelchair, then stepped back to let him have his moment of triumph. Marty received his degree.
Then teary-eyed officiants turned to Judy and presented her with a degree of her own, an honorary MBA, prompting an ovation from the crowd.
“I certainly never expected any recognition,” Judy said. “I did what I did out of love for my son.”
After commencement, she and Marty took a break. Judy visited her ailing mother in Florida and Marty began plotting his next career move.
This fall Marty started a job in business development with DIVERTcity, a Los Angeles startup that’s developing programs and facilities to make action sports more accessible and affordable for urban youth.
It’s a CU Boulder reunion of sorts: Marty’s former CU roommate David Monhait (Arch’11) and Zachary Adamson (Mgmt’11), founded the firm.
Judy’s back in Florida, caring for her mother.
If she sees Marty less now, she still sees him often.
“You can fire your assistant,” she said, “but you sort of have to keep your mom.”
Photo courtesy Chapman University