Preston O’Connell, 72, Passes Away in Vermont

John Preston O’Connell

John Preston O’Connell (Preston to his friends) was born to his loving parents, John and Joanne (née Preston) O’Connell, on June 18, 1951, in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
He was followed in short order by four younger siblings, and the close-knit clan shared what can only be described as an idyllic mid-century, suburban childhood in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. As his brother Scott once said, “Sometimes I think that heaven is being seven years old on Lindsey Drive.” Every summer, John and Joanne would load up the kids and head north to Wa-Wa-Nosh, the family cottage in the Georgian Bay, where Preston spent his summers on the lake with his siblings, cousins, and the numerous friends he made as a camper and later a counselor at Camp Hurontario.
Upon graduating from Conestoga High School, Preston attended Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.. Never one to take academics too seriously, Preston spent only a year at Allegheny before giving into what he referred to as a chronic condition of itchy feet and headed out on the road. It was the 1970s, and the world was out there waiting for him, so he went to find it. His time in Meadville may have been brief, but it was enough to make a lasting impression on his classmates and build lifelong friendships.
Preston spent much of his young adulthood exploring. He spent five winters as a hippie ski bum in Vermont and Utah. In the off seasons he traveled, converting his handyman skills into money in his pocket and his charm into friendships. He spent time in the wilderness, enjoying some epic remote canoe trips. Throughout, he always circled back to family in Georgian Bay and Berwyn.
Hitchhiking was his transportation of choice, and he was fond of showing up at his parent’s house unannounced, with a paperback book in his pocket, a bag of dirty laundry on his back, and a fresh batch of stories – sometimes with the facts “a bit enhanced” – with which to regale the family.
When the allure of the ski bum life wore thin, Preston headed West again, this time to Washington State. He picked apples in the Columbia Valley, sleeping under the stars, and settled for awhile on Orcas Island where he and his friend Michael Ryan set up their own outfit, Shivaree Painters.
Eventually he landed in Seattle, where he worked as a bartender while going to boat building school. It was there that he met a young woman named Tory Moran, a Jersey girl studying at the University of Washington. In short order they were living together, and three years later they were married. Tory found work in Sitka, and Preston, never one to turn down a new adventure, followed shortly after, first doing construction, and later serving as the building inspector for the City and Borough of Sitka.
It was in Sitka that Preston embarked on his greatest adventure of all: fatherhood. His two daughters, as he told them constantly, were the light of his life and the music of his soul. Preston adored being the father of girls. He was a stay-at-home dad before it was trendy, a classroom parent, and a softball coach. He hosted slumber parties, chaperoned Girl Scout trips, and put his carpentry skills to work satisfying the whims of his bossy kids. He highly valued family traditions and created many magical Christmas Eves and Mornings. He took joy in introducing his daughters to books, and music, and history, and in return he read and listened to the things they liked, no matter how frivolous. He navigated the emotional peaks and valleys of adolescence with grace and a sense of humor and had a gift for putting things in perspective that his daughters are forever grateful for (even if they sometimes responded with an eye roll).
Preston was a romantic who loved deeply; he built meaningful relationships that profoundly shaped him throughout his life. In his middle years, he treasured the time he spent exploring the glorious waterways of Southeast Alaska with some of his chosen family on the Haven Bay, a Nordic Tug, and cross-country skiing in Juneau.
Preston spent 30 years in Alaska before succumbing again to his itchy feet. After a months-long road trip spent reconnecting with old friends scattered across the country, he ended up in Morrisville, Vermont, where he had spent happy winters in his youth. There he settled down and set up a quiet retired life in a cabin in the woods with his beloved dog Russell, who accompanied him on his spur of the moment road trips. And still, every summer, he returned to Wa-Wa-Nosh, his favorite place on earth. In the last summer of his life, he was joined there by his daughters and granddaughters, who he delighted in introducing to the joys of the Georgian Bay.
Preston was too many things to name in the pages of a newspaper. He was a dear son, a loving brother, a doting father and uncle. He was a storyteller, and a maker of friends, a talker and a singer of songs. He was a genuinely kind man, always quick to help, whether it be with a joke to lighten the mood, or by providing a place for someone down on their luck, no questions asked.
“His smile lit up a room, and we can still hear his booming laugh,” his daughters said, always with his head thrown back in delight. Preston used to say that he was born in the best of times and circumstances possible, with a rock-solid family and the freedom to make his own mistakes. But he never took for granted the privilege of his upbringing, a middle-class white kid in the suburbs, and he took genuine joy in watching the world evolve and expand to include the perspectives of those who had been silenced in the past. Preston was delighted by the world, in all its complexities, and welcomed its changing with curiosity and an open heart.
Preston passed away on January 22, 2024, with his children and dog by his side, and feeling the love of his extended family and friends.
He was preceded in death by his parents, John and Joanne O’Connell; his beloved niece Meghan McGuire; and his best friend and eternal fishing buddy Larry Crevey.
He is survived by his daughters, Chandler and Margot O’Connell; his granddaughters, Theodora and Freya LaDuke, and their father, Cale LaDuke; his former wife, Victoria O’Connell Curran; his sister Paige McGuire; his brothers Mark, Scott, and Paul O’Connell; and a sprawling clan of cousins, nieces, and nephews.
In addition to his family, Preston is survived by his friends, too numerous and far-flung to name.
“While we will mourn the loss of Preston forever, we are all blessed to have known him, and the world is a better place for having had him in it. He heads out on his next adventure with only love at his back, the reward for a life well lived, his family and friends said.
A celebration of his life will be held 2 p.m. Saturday May 18, 2024, at the Odess Theater at Sitka Fine Arts Camp. An online ceremony is planned at noon Alaska time on  Sunday June 16.
“All are welcome to join, as we say farewell to one of the best. RSVP and learn more at prestonoconnell.com,” family said.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Preston’s name to the Birnie Hodgetts Children’s Fund, benefitting Camp Hurontario.

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