I met Jerry O'Connor a few years ago through the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce. Jerry is married to Chamber President Sue O'Connor, who I wrote about last year I knew that Jerry was very involved with the Manchester Road Race Committee and with the event fresh in everyone's mind, I wanted to get Jerry's perspective. I also have enjoyed hearing "Trainwreck Jerry" sing and play his acoustic guitar. Last Friday evening I heard him perform at Fred Blues & BBQ in Willimantic and got to test Jerry's memory of old folk tunes. Jerry not only can sing them, he will also give you the history of the songwriter and the musicians.
Timothy Becker: Jerry, how did you get involved with the Manchester Road Race Committee?
Jerry O'Connor: In the 1990s I was talking to Dr. Dave Prindeville who was the Road Race Chairman at the time. He was not happy with the program for the event. They printed 1000 copies and sold them for one dollar each, and lost money on the programs. I told him that he should give the programs away and you will make money by selling ads. I got the job of writing the program and selling the ads.
Timothy Becker: How were you able to accomplish that?
Jerry O'Connor: I knew a little about road races. Sue and my daughter Allison had run marathons. I had graduated from journalism school, worked in an ad agency as a creative director, an account representative, and as president. I had also worked in publishing as a sales manager. The first Road Race program I produced was in 1996. It had a color cover and 28 pages. We printed 14,000 and made a $4,000 profit. For the past few years all the ads have sold out.
Timothy Becker: Did you have any problems with the first program.
Jerry O'Connor: When we began to give them away at the race, people said “no thank you.” The program looked so nice people though that we were selling them. It took a while for people to realize that the programs are free.
Timothy Becker: With such a mix of people that attend the race, who is your audience for the program?
Jerry O'Connor: We write the Manchester Road Race Program for the person who has been here 50 years and for the person that is here for the first time. The program is 50% advertising and 50% editorial. Purdy Corp. which is now Timken has sponsored the back cover since 1996. Last year we also produced a 75th anniversary book that is available on the Manchester Road Race website: http://www.manchesterroadrace.com/
Timothy Becker: What is it that makes the Manchester Road Race so special?
Jerry O'Connor: The race is a balancing act between tradition and innovation. We have the elite runners that run with everyone else. It is sometimes difficult to satisfy both groups. Everyone who runs gets their name in the newspaper. High school and college age runners get to run with the best runners in the world. We keep the fees reasonable for whole families to participate. The fee is $20. Fees for other race in the area run $35-$60 to participate.
Timothy Becker: What else are you involved in with the Manchester Road Race Committee?
Jerry O'Connor: I have worked on sponsorships in addition to program advertising. We wanted to get a television media sponsor that would run a replay of the race in addition to live coverage so that the runners could view the race. When we sat with Fox61 we had a deal in about 10 minutes.
Timothy Becker: I understand that the Manchester Road Race Committee donates the proceeds to local charities.
Jerry O'Connor: The Committee donates over $100,000 each year for Muscular Dystrophy Research here in Connecticut and to local charities. Often the Honorary Chair of the Manchester Road Race has a favorite charity that also receives a donation.
Timothy Becker: Shifting gears, tell me about your work as a folk singer. I have heard you play at MCC on Main and you have a broad knowledge of folk music from the 1960s and 1970s. You not only play and sing, but you tell many stories about the songwriters and folk singers. How did you get started with your music?
Jerry O'Connor: My father was a saxophone player in the big band era, but he had given it up by the time I was born. He did have a huge record collection of all types of music that I grew up listening to. My parents had me take piano lessons and drum lessons. My uncle gave me my first guitar when I was about twelve and I started to play. We lived in New Jersey, a stones throw away from New York. My Dad used to take me to some of the seedy record stores in Brooklyn and I found records of the musicians that were playing in Greenwich Village. When I was 15, I started going to Greenwich Village to hear the guitarists that I was following. Most of the clubs were coffee houses and didn't serve alcohol. During weekdays they had open mic nights called hoots. I started playing at “basket clubs.” After your performance they would pass the basket and you could keep what was collected.
Timothy Becker: What guitarist were you following?
Jerry O'Connor: I was a fan of Bruce Langhorne. He played guitar and tambourine. He played with some of the big names. Bob Dylan wrote a song about him called “Mr. Tambourine Man”.
Timothy Becker: Did you continue with your music career?
Jerry O'Connor: I was a member of a series of different bands. We played at colleges and some clubs in Jersey City and Brooklyn. I was making the best money that I ever made playing music. I joined the Navy in 1968 and I played in the evening with another sailor at clubs in Europe. After my active duty was over I went to college and took 30 years off from playing. About seven years ago I started to play again to go to open mic events. I now do two to three performances a month.
Timothy Becker: How did you get the name “Trainwreck Jerry” ?
.Jerry O'Connor: My son Kyle gave me that nickname. It has nothing to do with trains. It is more about my reputation of not being very handy with tools and electronic devices. In the past I have drilled into an electrical circuit while trying to hang up a sign. At home I have drilled into plumbing pipes by mistake. I once hooked up a fax machine at an office and unknowingly unplugged the fire alarm. A few minutes later all the fire engines in town were there. I like Boxcar Willie, so now my stage name is "Trainwreck Jerry.”