As a child, Matthew O’Connell wandered the aisles of the grocery store with his eyes glued to a book. As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, he pored over his reading at the library and walked the streets of Hyde Park with friends, talking and joking about everything from social justice to strange hairstyles.
O’Connell, whose warm personality and expansive intellect made him a valued member of the Department of Art History, died this summer in New York City. He was 26. A memorial service for O’Connell will be held Monday, Oct. 20 at 5 p.m. in Bond Chapel.
At UChicago, O’Connell focused his attention on Islamic art history, a subject that had fascinated him since his years as an undergraduate at Oberlin College.
His adviser, Persis Berlekamp, remembered her surprise at receiving O’Connell’s application to study Islamic art, because no one had taught that subject at Oberlin for most of his time there.
“He was so engrossed by Islamic art that he continued to research and write about it, even after the professor who taught those courses had left,” she said. “He was a truly brilliant young scholar, and his passing is a loss to the field of Islamic art and architecture.”
His experiences teaching English as a Fulbright fellow in Turkey in 2010-11 gave him even more opportunities to pursue his passion for the art, culture and history of the Islamic world. During his time abroad, he visited medieval architectural sites across the country.
The arts always held a special fascination for O’Connell, according to his mother Michele Salemi. As a child, he loved to make abstract drawings. He developed a passion for music, and played the viola for many years. An avid reader from an early age, O’Connell tore through the Chronicles of Narnia at age 6.
At UChicago, he made fast friends with fellow graduate students. His friend Maryam Sabbaghi, a student in the Divinity School, remembered O’Connell as “passionate and eager to learn. Whenever I saw him in the library, he would be poring over his books, coming up with the next best idea,” she wrote in an email. “I feel blessed to have had Matt as a dear friend.”
Claire Jenson, a fellow Art History student, remembered O’Connell for his remarkable personal warmth. “Matt listened intensely, eager to hear our opinions, sympathize with our troubles, and share in our victories—and he would respond readily with some new perspective or compassionate feeling,” she recalled. “He was warm and affable and clever, and wholly present. His company was so precious, because it was so complete.”
To his mother, O’Connell was always simply “a great kid,” Salemi recalled. “He accomplished so much in such a short time.”
O’Connell was the beloved son of Michele Salemi and Matthew J. (Maureen Gaughan) O’Connell, Sr.; loving brother of Abigail, Michael and Kathleen O’Connell, and Jessica and Jacob Summers; cherished grandson of Geri Fiutak and Salvatore Salemi, and Mary Ann and the late Dr. Cornelius O’Connell; and stepson of Thomas Summers.