Three Rivers has lost an exemplary community member who dedicated his life to the service of others, whether he knew them or not. A gentle man who loved nature, animals, hot chocolate, Turner Classic Movies and, most of all, Three Rivers, James Pat O’Connell has left a legacy of more than 54 years of community service that will forever be unrivaled.
Pat passed peacefully on Saturday, April 6, 2019, with the comforting surety that he would be reunited with his devoted wife of 55 years, Shirley, who passed away in 2004 and whom he never stopped missing, and his beloved son, Jim, who died in a tragic accident 45 years ago. Answering the final call at 91 years of age, Pat embodied the definition of a life well lived.
Pat’s Legacy Celebration Memorial is scheduled for Sunday, May 19, 3 p.m., at Three Rivers Memorial Building. A private graveside service will be held the day before.
The Early Years
Pat O’Connell was born October 13, 1927, in Los Angeles, Calif., to James David and Georgia Kathleen O’Connell. Certain their impending baby was going to be a girl, Jimmy O’Connell had decided to name her Patty. When the baby turned out to be a little boy, the proud father decided they would simply call him “Pat.” When he was told that he couldn’t just name a baby Pat, it was decided to officially name him James Pat O’Connell, a variation of a family name that went back generations. But Pat he would always be.
Growing up during the Depression years in Los Angeles, Pat remembered a comparably fortunate childhood as both his parents were steadily employed and able to provide for his needs.
His father had been a street car conductor when he first came to California from Minnesota. He later became a cab driver and eventually worked his way up to garage superintendent for the cab company. Pat’s mother, rather than being a stay-at-home mom so conventional to the era, was a telephone operator for the phone company.
Pat attended Manual Arts High School, located near Exposition Park and the Memorial Coliseum Los Angeles. Like many teenaged boys of the day, he did not finish high school, but by age 16 went to work at the cab company where his father was a garage superintendent, working his way from apprentice to journeyman mechanic.
During World War II, Americans on the home front were encouraged to “Adopt a Serviceman.” The O’Connell home, with just the one teenager, Pat, soon became a bustling, hopping place with various servicemen Pat’s dad would invite to stay with them. His mother would also invite young women from the phone company to room at the O’Connells’ home.
It was through this generous hospitality that Pat acquired his “brother” Bob Pierce, a Marine who had been a cab driver with his dad, and “sister” Jeannie Moeller, brought home by his mother. They stayed with the family even after the war years and were forever after family.
In November 1945, just months after the end of World War II and weeks after he turned 18, Pat was drafted into the U.S. Army. He was first stationed at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and ultimately was stationed in Japan during the American occupation and reconstruction period. It was an adventure of a lifetime and the only time in his life he traveled outside of the United States.
After his overseas Army service, Pat continued working for the cab company and was transferred to the Crown Hill area garage, where across the street was the French Dip and Steak House restaurant. A beautiful young waitress named Shirley Herbert worked there. She would come in early before the restaurant opened just to fix breakfast for the cab drivers. Pat would make up excuses to drive Shirley home downtown; it was out of his way, but it was quite a while before she realized he didn’t really need to go downtown at all.
Following his time at the cab company, Pat had various jobs, including a stint with the Automobile Club of Southern California. It was while working for the Auto Club that Pat got his first towing job: pulling a float in the famous Pasadena Rose Parade. With the Auto Club, he served as a public relations representative and was eventually promoted to Investigator of Complaints. Both proved valuable experience for the future business owner.
Marriage, family, and the road to Three Rivers
Pat and Shirley were married September 25, 1949. They welcomed their first son, James Patrick, in August 1953.
In 1958, Pat leased a Mobil service station on the corner of Slauson and La Brea and went into business for himself. The following year their second son, Jay Michael, was born, and the family moved into a house they purchased in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westchester.
In the early 1960s, tired of the hustle and bustle (and smog) of the city, Pat and the family took a trip, visiting small rural towns in Arizona, Utah, and Oregon with the ulterior motive of finding a service station to buy. On the last day of their epic road trip, they visited Sequoia National Park on their way back to Southern California. When Pat stopped at Livermore’s small Mobil station in the gateway community of Three Rivers, he half-jokingly asked the owner if the place was for sale.
The evolution of Pat’s Mobil
One of the first things Pat did at his new business was to hand-letter, in blue paint, an illuminated sign that he hung in the window (it still hangs there today). It read “Emergency Contact Pat Next Door.” Those words proved to be prophetic and often-heeded.
Pat’s Mobil quickly became a Three Rivers institution. Offering gasoline with full-service attendants, full mechanical work in a three-bay garage, and two-hour tow service with the only AAA contract in the greater area, the business generated as much hustle and bustle for Pat as the big city ever did. Pat defined the hardworking small businessman; his only scheduled day off for years was Christmas Day (which was usually interrupted with tow calls).
For years, his ad slogan was “Always a ready smile,” which was fitting. Perhaps his most famous catch phrase/greeting was “Hoot Mon!” Think of it as a mid-century version of “Wassup?”
Another recurrent phrase from Pat, after tinkering under a distressed motorist’s hood and in response to their question of “How much?” was “We’ll getcha next time.” Did he even notice they had out-of-state plates? Yeah, probably.
Over the years, many young (and some not so young) men worked at Pat’s service station. The list of former employees who considered him a mentor, motivator, inspiration, and more is legion. And just as the faces at the service station changed over the years, the business itself went through various transformations.
In 1982, oil distribution contracts prompted a change to British Petroleum (BP), so the flying horse Mobil logo was painted over and the light-up sign on the garage became “Pat’s Petrol.” Then in 1998, EPA regulations prompted the removal of the aging underground storage tanks, and Pat’s Petrol simply became Pat’s Service, offering towing and general mechanical work. Also at some point, Pat relinquished his AAA contract (that was capably inherited by Valero Bros of Woodlake) and focused on an independent and less overwhelming tow service, which he continued to operate until 2008, well past his 80th birthday. It was insurance costs that finally prompted his retirement from operating the tow truck.
“But I’ll still be available for lockouts, tire work, and most minor repairs,” Pat said in a Commonwealth interview about his “retirement.”
As demanding as his business was, Pat found time for community involvement. Pat was a lifetime member of the Three Rivers Lions Club and Three Rivers Historical Society. During the early years at Pat’s Mobil, he taught a 4-H automotive class. And for many decades, he was actively involved in the local Boy Scouts, only missing a weekly meeting if an after-hours tow call took him away. Many times over the years, Pat donated a wrecked auto (and turned it on its side) for the fire department to use in rescue drills.
And as local blood drive organizers know, Pat rarely missed the opportunity to donate blood. In 2012, he was recognized by the Central California Blood Bank for donating more than 10 gallons since 1992 when the organization began keeping records (and he had been donating blood for decades before that).
Over the years, Pat received numerous awards, citations, and was profiled in numerous newspapers and magazines. In 1985, he was presented with the Volunteer of the Year award from the Three Rivers Union School PTA. In 1987, Pat received a first-of-its-kind citation from Park Superintendent John Davis for his long-standing assistance to park operations in providing aid to visitors. In 1989, he was awarded Person of the Year by the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce. In 1997, the Redbud Garden Club presented Pat with its Community Beautification Award due to his verdant hillside garden behind his home.
Shortly before his retirement from the towing business, he was nominated to the Tow Truck Driver’s Hall of Fame, and in conjunction with the preparation of that nomination he was presented with two large scrapbooks filled with many stories of, and thank-you notes for, his various roadside rescues. In 2006, at the age of 79, Pat found himself in need of another tow truck. After an extensive search he found the perfect used rig, and when he went to hand over the cash and complete the purchase, he was shocked to learn the community of Three Rivers had already paid for the truck.
As hardworking as Pat was, he still found time to enjoy many hobbies. He was a talented artist (sketches, pen-and-ink drawings) in his younger days, an avid stamp collector, and used to keep tropical fish. Something beyond a mere hobby was his love (obsession) of gardening and landscaping. To say he moved mountains, shovelful by shovelful, is not hyperbole. And Pat enjoyed animals. He had collies in his early years, but later became something of a cat person. In addition to cherished house cats, he provided food, water, and sanctuary to outdoor feral cats, and they all provided him with much-appreciated companionship.
In the 1960s, Pat began a community tradition that brought joy to so many. He would decorate the old ’46 Chevy tow truck with lights from the front grill to tires to the boom, a toy sack on the tow hook, and Santa waving from the driver’s seat. In recent years, this anticipated community custom has been carried on by his son, Jay, with Pat always making an appearance at the first lighting of the season as guest of honor.
Long ago, Pat discovered the secret to happiness, something many search for their entire lives: help others when they need it most. Stranded families often stayed with the O’Connells (many times on Christmas Day). Shirley became proficient at stretching a meal originally intended for four.
When people would ask Pat or Shirley why they so selflessly extended this assistance to complete strangers, they would reply that they always hoped that if their sons or another loved one needed help, someone would do them the much-needed good turn.
In his final years, after a setback put him in a Visalia rehabilitation hospital and assisted living for a year, Pat was able to rebound. He lived out the last five years of his life at his beloved home, tending to his yard, attending the annual Tow Truck Lighting, and caring for cats Merle and then Sasha. And although mostly self-sufficient, this was made possible by Meals-on-Wheels, the kindness of an entire community of friends, and some wonderful home care from Gracie, Shelbi, Veronica, Lina, and especially Sandy Norris, whom he grew to love like a daughter.
Pat is survived by his son, Jay; daughter-in-law Susie; and grandsons JP (James Patrick, carrying on that old family name) and Colin Finn, all of Northridge, Calif.; his niece, Deni Doggett of Arizona; nephew Mike Herbert and wife Sally of Montana; and numerous great-nieces and great-nephews. He is also survived by his dear friend of nearly seven decades (and godmother to his son), Mary Lou Mosbacher of Tahoe, Calif.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Pat’s memory may be made to any organization devoted to helping people. Two local organizations are especially deserving: Three Rivers Bread Basket (P.O. Box 449) and Aging in Community-Three Rivers (P.O. Box 33).