WINCHESTER — The man who has given voice to The Winchester Star’s Editorial Page for nearly 30 years is signing off.
Adrian O’Connor, 65, will leave the newsroom today and quietly segue into a well-deserved retirement with his wife of 21 years, Toni Korb O’Connor.
His departure will be both mourned and celebrated. That’s because O’Connor’s daily opinion pieces were loved by some readers and hated by others.
Regardless of how people felt about his editorials, O’Connor impressed everyone he met as a fair-minded professional with a generous heart, expansive vocabulary and elegant writing style.
“Adrian is a dear friend, and while we disagree on almost everything, we would never let that diminish our friendship,” said former Virginia senator H. Russell Potts Jr. of Winchester. “Adrian loves Winchester, Frederick County, the commonwealth of Virginia and this great country. He is a staunch defender of liberty and our democratic process, and he has inspired us to pay attention to what is going on in our country.”
Potts, a Republican who turned independent for his 2005 run for Virginia governor, was among dozens of high-profile political and community leaders who would make regular pilgrimages to O’Connor’s office to discuss topics ranging from government operations to the latest inductees into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Another frequent visitor was former Virginia governor and current U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
“I have known and appreciated Adrian since I was an unknown mayor from Richmond trying to introduce myself to Virginia voters when I ran for lieutenant governor in 2001,” Kaine said this week during a break in the Senate’s impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. “We’ve hardly ever agreed on anything, yet I always find my visits with Adrian to be civil, intellectually challenging and fun. I will miss those visits.”
Democrat Mark Warner, another former Virginia governor who now represents the commonwealth in the U.S. Senate, also was a frequent guest.
“I’ve known Adrian ever since I got involved in Virginia politics,” Warner said in an email this week. “I know his love of baseball and the Valley. While we didn’t always see eye to eye, particularly once I came to Washington, I knew he was always thoughtful, informed and willing to listen. I wish him all the best in his next stage in life.”
O’Connor came to work at The Star on Dec. 7, 1992, to give the paper its conservative voice via the editorial page.
He had been working as a sports, editorial and feature writer at the Danville Register & Bee in southern Virginia, where he was happy but looking for a change. He answered a “help wanted” ad in The Washington Post and drove north to meet with Thomas T. Byrd, who at that time was The Star’s general manager.
“It was obvious he wanted somebody who would be compatible over a long period of time,” O’Connor said. “We were on the same page.”
For 25 years, his writings reflected the conservative stances of the Byrd family, which owned and operated The Star. That frequently brought him under fire from readers who disagreed with his editorials, but he stood behind his work and, on a personal level, tended to agree with the political opinions of his employers.
Sometimes, former Star publisher and retired U.S. senator Harry F. Byrd Jr. had to remind O’Connor to ease up on the fire-breathing rhetoric.
“I can remember a couple of times when the senator would come in and say, ‘The opinion’s right, but tone it down,’” O’Connor said. “I was not allowed to take as many pot shots as people think.”
Regardless, O’Connor still managed to infuriate some people with his editorials, and those readers were never too shy to share their anger.
“I took it as part of the job,” he said. “They’re responding to something that I wrote that made them as angry at me as I could be at them for some of the things they’ve said about me.”
On April 1, 2018, the Byrd family sold The Star to Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, W.Va. O’Connor’s editorial duties continued under the new ownership. A bigger challenge came one year ago, when The Star moved from its longtime home at 2 N. Kent St. to the former F&M Bank Building at 100 N. Loudoun St. on the Loudoun Street Mall.
In its new location, The Star’s news, editorial, production and administrative staff share a large, open space, so O’Connor had to leave behind the solace of a private office and adjust to a much busier and noisier environment.
“It hasn’t been that big of a problem,” he said. “I’ve not experienced the writer’s block that I might have expected because of the sound.”
O’Connor also authors the weekly Valley Pike column, which has appeared in The Star’s Local section since 1997. The column foregoes divisive opinions about politics and instead serves up homespun tales about people and places in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Many of his Valley Pike columns were highly personal, so readers gained greater insight into the man behind the editorials. One of the things O’Connor shared, for example, was information about his ongoing health problems.
O’Connor received a kidney transplant four years ago. The new kidney continues to function perfectly, but the transplant led to the development of a blood clot and, a short time later, squamous cell carcinoma, which is a form of skin cancer.
“People who have had kidney transplants, and also have fair skin and spent a lot of time in the sun as a kid, are susceptible to it,” O’Connor said of the cancer. “The transplant triggered it because of the immunosuppressant drugs I was taking.”
To date, O’Connor has had a half-dozen surgeries and 87 radiation treatments and is currently undergoing immunotherapy so his body’s immune system has a better chance of eliminating the cancer.
“It’s a very wily disease that’s hard to catch up with,” O’Connor said. “There are a lot of options for trying to treat it, and I’m on the third option.”
While his health problems and related medical treatments have been difficult, O’Connor said they were not the only factors that led to his decision to retire as Editorial Page editor.
“I’ve done the job for such a long time,” he said. “It’s not that I dislike what I do, but I was trying to be a full-time employee, a full-time patient ... and a part-time caregiver [for his 94-year-old mother-in-law].”
O’Connor first started thinking about retirement in 2016 when his wife retired from her teaching job. He figured he would either step down when he turned 66 in May or when he celebrated his 40th anniversary as a journalist in February.
Last month, he realized there was no reason to wait for those milestones. He set Jan. 24 as his official retirement date.
“When Toni and I went to apply for her government benefits, she was so relieved and so happy,” O’Connor said. “I left there thinking, ‘Forty is just a number. I don’t have to wait.’”
Following a farewell party today at The Star, O’Connor will officially enter the next stage of his life. He plans on getting some long-overdue rest and relaxation, scratching a few items off his “honey-do” list, and doing some writing — possibly an occasional column in The Winchester Star, maybe a nonfiction book he’s been contemplating for several years.
“Adrian O’Connor retires from The Winchester Star this week,” said former Winchester city manager Ed Daley, “but his legacy will remain.”
“Emily and I wish he and Toni all the love, good health, happiness and a fantastic ride into the sunset,” Potts said. “Happy trails.”