by Dennis Dalman
It’s no wonder Julianne O’Connell of St. Joseph is often called a “bookworm.” Books have always held an enormous importance in her life.
And she loves to share books. For the past two years, she has gone out of her way to collect books she gives away free at the Millstream Arts Festival in downtown St. Joseph.
She is eagle-eyed about spotting books. She buys them at garage sales, at yard sales, at St. Cloud Library sales. Friends and acquaintances save big stacks of books for her, and she even checks out book sales while traveling.
“Oh yes, I was always a bookworm,” she said.
Some of O’Connell’s happiest memories are of reading. She recalls becoming totally engrossed in the Margaret Mitchell novel Gone with the Wind when she was home with the flu during high school. She remembers reading aloud from Stephen King’s The Shining on the school bus and scaring some of the kids half to death.
Her idea for giving away good books occurred to her when she worked for a time at the St. Cloud Public Library. That library has a book-sale room with hundreds of quality books at rock-bottom sale prices so O’Connell began to amass many of them just to give to people.
Currently, O’Connell is the education curator for the Stearns History Museum where she conducts tours and helps program special events there. That is just the latest in a series of interesting jobs in her life.
Born in St. Cloud during the raging blizzard of 1965, O’Connell grew up there. She graduated from the College of St. Benedict with an English degree and an exposure to journalism. For a time, she worked as a freelancer, writing articles for magazines.
Not long after graduation, she moved to Rome, Italy where she taught English and even worked for a brief time at Vatican Radio.
Later, stateside, she taught English at Hill-Murray Middle School in Maplewood, then taught English at St. John’s Prep School for five years where she also served as librarian.
She then became a biology technician in Texas and New Mexico after marrying a biologist and ornithologist. One of her jobs was to catch, for study purposes, Chihuahuan ravens on the New Mexico-Texas border country.
Another unusual job was O’Connell’s turn as a ship’s log writer and tour guide, a ship that sailed all the way to Antarctica with stops in the Falkland Islands and the Georgian Islands. It was an exhausting trip. Most of the passengers were professionals of one sort or another: illustrators, naturalists and professional photographers.
“I wrote the log book for the passengers, most of whom were elderly,” she noted.
O’Connell is glad she majored in English.
“Every single job I’ve ever had I was hired because I knew how to write,” she said.
Some of O’Connell’s all-time favorite books and ones she often recommends are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, House of Mirth by Edith Wharton and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A more recent book that held her in thrall is Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea, a true account of the whaling ship Essex, which was attacked by a large whale in the Pacific Ocean in 1820 and which partly inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.
O’Connell’s father was the renowned sculptor Joseph O’Connell whose works grace the buildings and campuses of the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. O’Connell was a close friend of the great short-story writer J.F. Powers, who taught at St. John’s University. Powers is the Catholic godfather of Julianne O’Connell. O’Connell’s brother-in-law, with whom she wrote a screenplay titled Wabasha (as yet unproduced) is John Thavis, author of the bestselling The Vatican Diaries.
No, it’s not surprising at all O’Connell is a diehard bookworm, surrounded as she was all of her life by book lovers.
Anyone with books they want to part with can call O’Connell, and she can arrange to pick them up. Her number is 320-292-9812. The only books that cannot be accepted are Reader’s Digest condensed books or books that are damaged by water or mold.