Gary O'Connell: The man behind the curtain

After almost eight years as Charlottesville's city manager, Gary O'Connell's strategy for keeping his five bosses on City Council happy is pretty simple. "When good things happen, they get the credit. When bad things happen, I try to fix them."

O'Connell likes to fix things quietly from behind the scenes. "I'm not an on-the-front-page-of-the-paper sort of city manager," he says. "They don't last long." And after 22 years working for the City of Charlottesville, O'Connell seems to know whereof he speaks.

His father, a doctor, instilled in the young O'Connell the desire to make a positive difference in other people's lives– but the future city exec knew he didn't want to be a doctor. After being intrigued with government in college, he worked in a city manager's office one summer.

"I was always fascinated with policy," admits O'Connell. "There were job opportunities in the federal government, but city government is closer to people. You can see the difference and be a part of it."

Despite a steady line-up of meetings, O'Connell says there's a lot of variety in his job: "I get to work on all kinds of different things and meet different people under different circumstances."

The worst part of his job is the demanding schedule. His day starts early with exercise around 5:30am, and he's in the office by 8 or 8:30. When he leaves around 6, it isn't to call it a day. He goes home to dinner– and then returns to the office.

O'Connell compares himself to a cop who looks for signs of trouble when out patrolling the beat. "For me to relax," he says, "I've got to get out of Charlottesville."

After being here for more than two decades, O'Connell takes satisfaction in watching the changes that have improved life in this city, whether it's the school system or community projects like Tonsler Park. It's that making-a-positive-difference thing.

And his nightmare city manager job? "A place with 50 or 60 council members."

Age: 52

What brought you here? My job. I came to Charlottesville 22 years ago thinking I could be here a few years, and, like many, found this a great community and stayed.

What's worst about living here? Too many people are finding out what a great place Charlottesville is and are moving here. The secret is out.

Favorite hangout? Front steps of the Rotunda at dawn and coffeehouses on the Downtown Mall

Most overrated virtue? Patience and flexibility

What would people be surprised to know about you? I was in a rock-n-roll band, the Shooting Stars.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? More hair on my head

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Being city manager of a great city, and I have to add my family– my wife and three sons.

What do people find most annoying about you? Sometimes I don't listen very well.

Whom do you admire? It's a cliché: Thomas Jefferson.

Favorite book? Anything by Stuart Woods

What subject causes you to rant? My boat when it doesn't start

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Change in technology

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? It's going by too fast.

What do you drive? An Isuzu and a Fuji bicycle

What's in your car CD/tape player right now? Books on tape: How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, and of course, the Dave Matthews Band

What's your next journey? To Paris and Bulgaria

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? I'll never tell.

What do you regret? Probably agreeing to do this interview

Favorite comfort food? Sushi

What's always in your refrigerator? Jar of pepperoncini peppers

Must-see TV? Sports, especially the NCAA basketball Final Four

Favorite cartoon? When I was a kid, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse brought lots of smiles.

Describe a perfect day. Fantastic fishing trip in an exotic place

Walter Mitty fantasy? Sailing around the world

Who'd play you in the movie? Jimmy Stewart

Most embarrassing moment? Backing into a police car

Best advice you ever got? A Walt Disney quote that my father used often inspired me: "If you can dream it, you can achieve it."

Favorite bumper sticker? "My 2 favorite teams are Virginia and whoever is playing North Carolina" (and now Virginia Tech)

 

 

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