A “Millgrimage” to Milledgeville” : Honoring Edward O’Connor on Veteran’s Day

According to A Literary Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Georgia by Sarah Gordon, Craig Amason, and Marcelina Martin (a favorite little volume of mine), Edward Francis O’Connor met Regina Cline at his sister’s wedding to Herbert Cline. The O’Connor clan enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit. Ed worked in the family venture and matriculated at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland to prepare for his role in business. His plans were interrupted by the First World War. He served as an officer during the war. After discharge from the Army, he worked in various businesses, including The Dixie Realty Company given to the O’Connors by Cousin Katie Cline on the birth of Mary Flannery (Gordon, Amason, and Martin 4-5, 19).

The combined after-effects of military service and the Great Depression caused Ed’s fortunes to decline. He was away from home much of the time to Atlanta where the suffering was great. While nationally unemployment was twenty-five percent during The Great Depression, the lingering effect of the boll weevil since the 1920s left half the working population in that city without jobs. The Clines had avoided the agricultural pre-Depression. Flannery was at dance class when FDR closed the banks to stem withdrawals (Gooch 42), but soon Dixie Realty folded, as did a series of other short-lived O’Connor businesses. O’Connor found himself living in Atlanta and working for the FHA.

It’s unclear how badly undiagnosed lupus degraded Ed’s energy during Flannery’s youth. We read he was charismatic and handsome but that he was seldom seen in his daughter’s company, although they doted on each other. They were kindred spirits sharing wit, humility, and creativity. Years later, reading her father’s handwritten speeches about veterans, Mary Flannery claimed writing as another bond between them (44). For his part, according to Gooch, “His pride in her could amount to infatuation. From 1927 until 1932, he included a separate listing for “Miss Mary Flannery
O’Connor in the Savannah City Directory, an unusual, whimsical gesture for a preschool child.” The Clines were a matriarchal clan. When Edward went to work in Atlanta, his wife and daughter soon returned to Milledgeville, living at first in the Cline mansion. Meanwhile, Ed lived in a rooming house on weekdays in Atlanta (Elie 61). His health declined, and he expended increasing stores of his energy to support war veterans. By age 39, O’Connor was unable to get around well at all. Flannery O’Connor was to say, ” This is something called lupus. At the time he had it, there was nothing for it but the undertaker” (Elie 95).

Meanwhile, he had dedicated himself to promoting the cause of the forgotten veterans of the war he fought in Europe. Like today, many had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Then it was called “shell shock” and considered a sign of weakness by those who had never huddled in the trenches. Combat veterans today are not treated much better despite the advancements of civilization. Look under an urban overpass; you are likely to find a suffering hero. The relief of this pain was the impossible mission that Edward O’Connor took onto himself.

I am a great admirer of Regina Cline O’Connor, but she loudly opposed her husband’s work and friends from the Legion. Gooch says Ed exhibited Flannery-like stubbornness in resisting her. The Cline women were a formidable force. O’Connor was “snooty,” “lazy,” and “a dreamer,” lazy because undiagnosed lupus drained him, so he needed to nap during afternoons. Flannery seemed to absorb some of these low opinions despite her devotion to her father. Flannery thought she remembered her father’s flaws and was over-scrupulous about finding his faults in herself. About her memories, Sally Fitzgerald said, “More likely, she was told this of him, or heard him being told this of himself, or overheard it implied in conversations among adults that she was not meant to overhear” (Gooch 43).

During the “Millgrimedge” we visited the gravesite where the O’Connors rest. It was easy to find with the direction graciously given by Nancy Davis Bray, curator of the Ina Dillard Russell Library Special Collections: turn left after entering the gate. Those three together are a few hundred yards in that direction against the fence.

Flannery and Regina are well remembered and honored fifty-seven years after Flannery’s passing. Today on Veterans Day, let’s remember Edward Francis, who also contributed to the nurturing of that O’Connor gift and who in addition “made the world safe for democracy.” He might ask us also to remember those alive today who suffer for their service.

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