Jennie O'Connell: Her family perseveres
Jennie O'Connell said she and her children are doing well 10 years after the loss of her husband, and their father, Dan O'Connell.
O'Connell's world changed forever Feb. 5, 2002, when her husband of 12 years was found shot to death in the family's funeral home along with intern James Ellison. Her children, Kyle and Kaitlyn, were in elementary school. She was home making cupcakes for Kyle's tenth birthday the next day when she got the news.
Her most vivid memory of those first, horrific days was of shock and fear. She was scared and didn't know if it was safe to let her children out of her sight or let them go to friends.
"It was the unknown ... Who, who, who would do this and why?" It was three years before she got an answer.
O'Connell is convinced that the late Ryan Erickson, an assistant pastor at St. Patrick's Catholic Church at the time, killed her husband and James Ellison.
In October 2005, when St. Croix County Judge Eric Lundell found that there was evidence to show Erickson was guilty of the crime, O'Connell said her life changed again.
"We finally had answers -- not all of them but enough to understand what happened. After the hearing, I felt I could close that chapter and start life up again."
At the time of his death and in the subsequent years, O'Connell said she tried to protect her children from as much information as possible about their father's death and the circumstances surrounding it. She was apparently successful. Since graduating from Hudson High School two years ago, Kyle began researching the story himself.
"He has been kind of amazed at everything he's found out. He says 'You never said anything.' They were so young at the time and it was just hard not having Dan around. I felt that was enough for them to deal with."
O'Connell said in the early days she was afraid she wouldn't be able to bring up her children without Dan. She remembers voicing her fears to her mother, Helen McKnight, of Stillwater.
"But she told me 'yes you can and you will. You will be the best parent you can be.' I don't think I believed it at the time but I came to. I learned that I am a pretty strong person."
O'Connell says her life and that of her children has gotten easier over the years. As high a profile as the O'Connell family has in Hudson, she says a lot of people don't recognize who she is but when they do, she "just rolls with it" these days.
Now a clerk with the Hudson Police Department, she recalled a day when a woman from a cable television crime program called wanting to talk to Chief Marty Jensen about doing a show about the murders. O'Connell put the call through to Jensen's voice mail. When he called back, he told the woman he would have to talk to Dan's widow, someone she had already spoken with.
O'Connell told her she wasn't interested in doing the program. And she doesn't think she will ever do a book about it either. "There have been shows about it but I'm not interested in doing anything more. I wouldn't feel comfortable doing something for money. The story has pretty much been told."
O'Connell says that she has moved on. She is personally happy and in a relationship again. But she says Dan will always be a part of her. Like a past injury, the pain of his loss can come back anytime. "Sometimes I can still bleed very easily."
O'Connell says she appreciates how the community has chosen to memorialize Dan over the years and she knows that is a comfort to her children as well. "He had his faults like we all do. But he loved people; loved talking to them and being around them. I think that's why people remember him so warmly."
It is difficult to think that anything good could come from an event so devastating, but O'Connell said it has taught her to value each and every day and to not take anything or anyone in her life for granted.
"Family is the most important thing. In my family whenever we get together we greet each other with 'I love you' and say goodbye the same way. We don't sweat the small stuff anymore. We know that all we have is today and we don't want to waste it."
O'Connell said she expects to stay in Hudson until she can retire somewhere warmer. She said she never considered leaving the town where she and Dan began their life together with their children. "They suffered enough trauma. I would never move them away from Hudson."
According to his mother, Kyle O'Connell is a lot like his dad and has his father's gift of gab and ease with people. "He's really grown into a wonderful man. And sometimes when he talks, it takes my breath away. He sounds so much like Dan." Kyle is in college and working two jobs.
Kaitlyn will graduate from Hudson High School this spring and will attend college in the fall. She was very young when her father was killed and especially cherishes photos of him. O'Connell said Kaitlyn has a favorite in which she is sharing a secret with her dad. This year when she had graduation photos taken, the photographer was able to re-create the same photo, only this time Dan with his now 17-year-old daughter. "She will always be her daddy's little girl," said O'Connell.
A mother clearly proud of her children, Jennie O'Connell did exactly what her mother predicted she would do 10 years ago. She thinks Dan would be proud too.