McConnell leaves legacy

Former UNH professor combined business, art

By Rachel Follender
On March 22, 2013

  • Michael McConnell’s statues are now displayed in the courtyard of the new Paul College of Business and Economics. Courtesy

When Jim Davis was unable to sleep on airplanes, he and his colleague Michael McConnell invented the Headbed-an inflatable neck pillow to aid the needs of frequent travelers. Their creation birthed Talus Corporation: a company that specializes and sells a wide array of travel products and home accessories.

Davis and McConnell, both former UNH professors, were the entrepreneurial dream team. Davis brought his business and marketing skills into Talus, while McConnell utilized his exceptional ability to understand what people wanted. He would then bring that vision to life using his greatest skill and lifelong passion: art. 

After a long-fought battle with cancer, McConnell passed away last fall on Oct. 27, 2012. He was 64 years old. His 36 years as an art professor and three terms as chair of the Art and Art History Departments left a poignant impact on his colleagues and students.

"I was in WSBE for two and a half years and I decided to completely change my life and become an art student," said Samantha Freese, a former student of McConnell. "He was my advisor, and when I was really stressed about the switch, he made the whole process so easy, and it ended up being the best decision I had ever made."

In addition to being an influential member of the UNH community, McConnell is remembered for being a businessman, a real-estate entrepreneur, a loving father and husband, and an artist. His legacy will continue in Durham with the dedication of three of his sculptures to the new Paul College - a symbolic representation of his life's passion for art and his ability to do business with it.  

Currently on display in the courtyard of the Paul College, McConnell's larger-than-life sculptures serve as a testament to his artistic ability. His years at UNH were spent teaching courses in sculpture, welding and bronze casting, but McConnell's enthusiasm for sharing his creativity with others wasn't limited to his teaching career. Davis remembers meeting McConnell at UNH in the 1970's when he picked up sculpting as a hobby.

"I was taking a sculpture course and that's how I met him," Davis said. "We started doing bronze casting together and became great friends. I remember all the time we spent welding together. People really admired him for his sense of design."

McConnell's love of art, and, more specifically, of sculpture and teaching, developed at an early age, according to his wife of 30 years, Maryse McConnell.

"In elementary school, Michael's school had people come in and talk to students about their careers," she said. "One was an art professor, and at that age he just decided that was what he wanted to be."

McConnell was born in Troy, Ohio on Dec. 4, 1948. He graduated from Troy High School in 1967, and received both a Bachelors and Masters Degree in Fine Arts from Ohio University.

When he was just a child, McConnell began taking art, sculpture and welding classes. It wasn't long before his interests sparked into passion, and he knew exactly what his future would entail - an intuition brought to life in his work.

"He could see a larger picture of where and how something should end up," Maryse McConnell said. "He had a large attention to detail, whether he was playing golf, doing business or creating art. He understood that things change, and he had an ability to see the change, change with it and make new decisions."

Maryse McConnell fondly remembers the years she spent with her husband buying and fixing up houses. Early on, they rented out their refurbished homes to UNH students. Eventually, all of the properties were sold to local residents and families, including McConnell's son.

Restoring old homes was more than just a business venture - it was another outlet in which McConnell expressed his artistic abilities. His creative mark is left not only in various Durham houses that he and his wife once owned, but in their own home, as well.

"Of course our house is artistic," Maryse McConnell said. "I assume all artists are like that. If you move into their environment, you're going to sense them in that space."

And when it comes to that space, the impression McConnell left is felt in a major way. It remains in the homes he and his wife restored, the UNH Art and Art History Departments, the success of his former business, and in the work he left behind. More eminently, however, is the impact he left on his colleagues, his students, his friends, and his family.

"I loved him dearly," Davis said. "He was my best friend and a good business partner. I can't say anything bad about him and I miss him dearly."

Davis, who now lives outside of Cleveland, Ohio, saw McConnell for the last time when he came to New Hampshire to visit him three weeks before he passed away. Talus Corporation was eventually sold to a new owner a few years ago and is now located in Portland, Maine.

Davis said that McConnell had a unique ability to utilize both his left and right brain, a quality that allowed their business to flourish and that Davis admired. 

"He understood that creating art was great but that to make a living you had to sell something," Davis said. "Talus combined both of those things, and we had a very good time."

Maryse McConnell said that she has received cards and condolences from various former students of her husband who hold him in high regard. 

"If you talk to his students, you'll find that he was very patient and understanding," she said. "He was very free and open. People tapped on that as a resource - they felt that he was approachable, and they really appreciated that."

One student, who commented on the Art Department Facebook page when McConnell passed away, recalled her favorite memory of McConnell during pre-registration for art majors. 

"We had all been sitting in line since the doors of the PCAC opened bright and early in the morning, and he came out of the office with a bowl of Lindt chocolates to share with everyone," the student wrote. "He was so cheerful and kind, and that's how I'll always remember him."

Another student wrote, "... I always remembered him telling me after I chiseled a sculpture in two that it was not a mistake - it was an opportunity."

Maryse McConnell said that Michael McConnell exuded openmindedness and curiosity. 

"He was a problem solver," she said. "He shared knowledge that would be good in any major."

While McConnell's sculptures outside of the Paul College were the last tangible gift he gave to UNH, their presence delivers an ongoing message: When business, creativity, hard work and passion come together, opportunity and success are endless.

"He always saw opportunity," Maryse McConnell said. "There is no end to opportunity. You just have to figure out what you can do, and you follow through until it's done."

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