Marguerite “Peg” O’Connor’s 30-plus years as a trustee with the Malverne Union Free School District — 10 of which she spent as president — ended when she retired this summer. She said she had joined the board for one reason: to make a difference.
“We wanted change for our children,” said O’Connor, who began her career in the district as a member of the Davison Avenue School PTA in 1970. “We would go to all of the board meetings, but nothing changed. Then one day, one of the trustees said to me, ‘If you think it’s easy, come up and do it yourself.’”
So she did. O’Connor’s fellow PTA members passed out fliers for her, and she created a petition, which was signed by 200 people.
“I’ve had parents come up to me and say, ‘I don’t like you, but I trust you,’” O’Connor recalled. For her, gaining trust was at the top of her list. Once she was elected to the board in 1980, she knew that she had credibility.
“You can’t change your mind from month to month and expect people to trust you,” she said. “You have to be consistent and try [to] build integrity with parents in the school district. You have to win over the parents to support the programs.”
O’Connor listed many highlights during her tenure in the district, including the numerous renovations made to the school buildings and the students’ academic and extracurricular achievements.
“We’re a district that was built by love,” she said. “We’ve done a lot, and I’m very proud to be a part of it.”
Charlie Nanton, co-founder of the Lakeview Youth Federation — which organizes community sports organizations for local youth — said that O’Connor has long been community-spirited. He said she helped form an alliance between the organization and the school district.
“You have to admire people like that,” Nanton said. “I’ve never met anyone quite like her. She’s a fighter. She’s never backed down from anything or anyone, and she knows that the work is never done with young people.”
O’Connor, who “retired” from the board in 2000, after 20 years, and took a four-year break before returning in 2004, attributed the success of the body to trustees’ willingness to make themselves visible. “We went to everything,” she said. “I’ll buy you a pizza, I’ll bake you a cake, we’ll do whatever it is, but we need your help.”
She grew up in Staten Island, and moved to Lynbrook in 1965. She explained that she had many friends who lived in the village. She became the secretary to the principal at Hempstead High School and worked in that district for 22 years. She received her bachelor’s degree in business management and communications at Adelphi University in 1991.
She added that one of the keys to a successful board is knowing when and how to ease the tension. “If I didn’t have a sense of humor, I wouldn’t get through life,” O’Connor said. “During executive sessions or long board meetings, I’d say something to break the tension. And if you don’t like something, table it and see if you can find an alternative that we can all agree on.”
Malverne School District Superintendent Dr. James Hunderfund, who acknowledged that he and O’Connor did not always agree, said that he is a fan of hers. “Her style is to say the truth and speak her mind,” said Hunderfund, who worked with O’Connor for 11 years. “Someone like her comes along once in a blue moon. I respect everything she stood for.”
“Dr. Hunderfund is a great man,” O’Connor said. “He could share my vision. The same could be said about Dr. [James] Tolle,” who was superintendent of the Malverne School District from 1979 to 1992.
O’Connor has three daughters — all of whom graduated from Malverne High School — and nine grandchildren. Now that she is retired, she said that she looks forward to doing more activities with friends. She admitted that with the school year under way, she will miss attending board meetings. “Just hearing what parents and students have to say . . . and knowing what’s going on,” she said.
Serving children is something she always enjoyed. “I always felt that I had 1,800 children to take care of,” she said. “If you look at the children as your own, then you want them to do well. The only sacrifice you make will be your time.”