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O'Connell's are Pepper Fest Grand Marshals

Janet and Tom O'Connell are the grand marshals for this year's North Hudson Pepper Fest parade. Life has come full circle for the couple, who have been married for 59 years. Their first meeting took place at a former village watering hole. Submitted photo

For Tom and Janet O'Connell, life together got its start in North Hudson. Now 59 years later, they will return there to serve as grand marshals at this year's Pepper Fest parade.

The couple met there in a bar near the Mallalieu Inn.

"He sent over a beer and I wouldn't turn that down, but I wasn't too impressed with him. He seemed kind of cocky. He wanted to show me his white Buick," Janet recalled.

Almost 60 years later, Tom has another car he likes to show off, a 1929 Ford coupe that the couple will ride in for the parade. "When he showed it to me in the garage, the exhaust brought on an asthma attack. What can I tell you," laughed Janet.

Laughter and a seemingly indomitable sense of humor are things the O'Connells are famous for -- that, and a successful entrepreneurial history. Today they operate the O'Connell Family Funeral Home, here in Hudson and in Baldwin.

When Tom met Janet, he was partner in Clark O'Connell Taxi and went onto to start the first ambulance service in Hudson and operated a Phillips 66 service station at the corner of Second and Vine streets.

He left the gas station business to work as a civilian for the U.S. Army, which had an office in Hudson City Hall. He joined the Red Arrow division of the Wisconsin National Guard, where he served for 12 years, retiring as a sergeant major.

His next move was to own and operate the West Seventh Street Pharmacy in St. Paul before pursuing what he describes as his "true calling -- to be a funeral director like his uncle, Frank O'Connell. He received his degree in mortuary science from the University of Minnesota and worked for a time with the Simonet Funeral Home in Stillwater.

He and Janet opened the O'Connell Family Funeral Home on 11th Street in 1985 followed by another in Baldwin and an expansion in Hudson.

The operative word in the business is family. The O'Connells had four children and enjoy five grandchildren. Working with their father are son Mike and daughter Kathy. Son Thomas Jr. lives with his family in Cross Plains. The late Dan O'Connell worked with his father and brother at the Hudson funeral home location, where he was murdered along with intern James Ellison in 2002.

The tragedy not only rocked the family but the entire community, where Dan also served as a paramedic and was a big supporter of Pepper Fest and other community organizations.

Community service is a family tradition for all the O'Connells, especially Tom. He is a member of Rotary, the Elks and the Knights of Columbus. He has been a board member of the Hudson Area Chamber of Commerce, the Hudson Community Fund and the United Way. He has served as a member of the St. Croix County Board for 24 years and chaired the Health and Human Services and Finance committees. He is currently the chairman of the Hudson Police and Fire Commission.

Through it all, Janet has been by her husband's side, raising their family and supporting her children and grandchildren. Uncomfortable with the spotlight, she discouraged son Mike from nominating them as grand marshals but says she and Tom both appreciate the honor.

"The Pepper Fest was something Dan really supported and loved, and everyone knows what a contribution it makes to the whole community. We're grateful for the honor. Now all I have to worry about is getting in and out of that rumble seat on that darn car of Tom's," said Janet.

The couple came from different backgrounds, but that didn't stop them from getting together. When asked if he has lived in Hudson all his life, Tom likes to reply, "Not yet." He was born and raised in Hudson on North Second Street to R.J. and Margaret O'Connell. He attended St. Patrick's School and Hudson High School.

When he met Janet Smisek, "a young Czech girl and doctor's daughter," she was living in Lakeland Shores but had also lived on Summit Avenue in St. Paul. The match may have seemed a little unlikely but the couple was married at St. Patrick's in August 1951.

Janet says the family, like everyone's, has had ups and downs, but love and commitment have seen them through. For the O'Connells those same feelings extend to the community at large.

"Growing up in St. Paul, we didn't necessarily know our neighbors. Here, everybody knows everybody. Sometimes it can take three hours to pick up a loaf of bread. But that's what makes it special. Everybody is friend, and that's a good feeling."

The O'Connells will be surrounded by friends when the parade down Sixth Street N. begins at 11 a.m. on Aug. 15. For more details about the parade and the Pepper Fest schedule of events, go to page 1C of this week's (Aug. 6) print edition of the Star-Observer.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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