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A Kent pioneer and his place: O'Connell legacy lives on with lasting family farm
From his perch atop a small tractor, Tom O'Connell appears at peace as he putters around his family's enduring farm.
"I love this place," said O'Connell, the 89-year-old patriarch of a family whose roots can be traced back to more than 140 years in Kent, whose farm stands untouched by surrounding commercial development.
Tucked away in the heart of the Kent Valley along the Green River, the O'Connell family's 30-acre farm on Frager Road South remains timeless, preserved, one of the last of its kind in a changing landscape that supports Boeing's empire, corporate warehouses and other growing industry.
All of which doesn't seem to bother the good-natured O'Connell, a third-generation farmer who once operated a producer-handler dairy outlet, a unique enterprise in the valley at the time. The large O'Connell family business – at its peak – managed as many as 100 cows daily – milking, bottling and selling fresh raw milk for families in the O'Brien community who would make the trip to the 85-acre dairy.
"We sold it right on the farm," said O'Connell, a fit, witty and sharp man who appears younger than his age. "Somehow we sold all of our milk. ... People would come here for their neighbors, you know, so they would only come once a month."
Operating a successful dairy for decades was just a part of a man who has lived a long and fulfilling life – a life of hard work, struggles, prosperity, duty, service and volunteerism. O'Connell, who turns 90 on Sept. 11, has so many people to thank, foremost his wife of 69 years, Margie, his six children, extensive family and many friends for making it all happen.
"You could say I had a good life," said O'Connell, who will celebrate his 90th birthday with family and friends at a Sept. 7 bash. The O'Connells, long in retirement, enjoy 21 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren.
A long family tradition
O'Connell, a Kent pioneer, still maintains the same farm today that his grandfather, an Irish immigrant, established in 1872, and the same farm his father inherited in the 1950s.
O'Connell hopes one day to pass the farm down to his two sons – Tom and Richard – who practically live next door. His four daughters – Eileen, Barbara, Monica, Kathryn – also keep close.
"And I'm still living here, and I don't know of any other farm in the whole valley that's still under the same name," he said.
Born in 1923 in Auburn, O'Connell attended O'Brien Elementary and Kent Junior High before graduating from Kent High School in 1941 before the school merged with Meridian to become Kent-Meridian High.
Out of school, he went right to work – on the farm and in the Seattle shipyards before serving in the Navy during World War II.
Following the war, O'Connell worked on the Northern Pacific Railroad and the Briscoe School dairy before opening a family dairy business that thrived for many years.
"(Farming) taught me persistence, not to give up," O'Connell said. "If you had a job to do, you did it."
From 1966-86, O'Connell worked as Kent's postmaster and served on many state and national committees before retiring.
O'Connell has been a part of the community through his work and volunteer efforts, namely with the Knights of Columbus, Elks, Rotary, and Toastmasters. He has done his share of hunting and fishing. He enjoys gardening and golfing.
Away from the farm, the O'Connells have travelled far and wide, seeing many parts of the country, as well as Canada, Mexico and other countries.
What's O'Connell's secret to his longevity?
"He has a good sense of humor, very affable, personable," Margie said. "He has good temperament ... and enjoys very good health."
Good health from a good run at life, he insists.
"A wonderful wife ... we've had a great life," O'Connell said. "Great woman behind me, and a great family. They say it takes a village. Well, our family is a village."