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Man of Many Hats Wins Kneedler Distinguished Service Award

With a windswept face, a figure as straight and sturdy as the masts of the wooden boats he once built, and a tattoo anchor on his forearm, Russell O'Connell looks as much a sailor of the seas as he does a sculptor.

As sculpture shop supervisor for Franklin & Marshall College's Art and Art History Department, and exhibition designer/coordinator for The Phillips Museum of Art, O'Connell has for many years divided his time between the classroom studios and the galleries, working with instructors, students and artists.

As he relaxed in one of the museum's galleries, where he's building display walls for a new student exhibit, O'Connell talked about being the 2013 recipient of F&M's much heralded Richard Kneedler Distinguished Service Award.

  • Rus O'Connell
  • Rus O’Connell, here assembling the frame for a student's installation in the Senior Art Show that runs May 3-May 11, is the 2013 recipient of F&M’s Richard Kneedler Distinguished Service Award. For a quarter century, he has skillfully and devotedly steered the College’s sculpture shop and kept the exhibits at the Phillips Museum of Art on course. (Photo By Melissa Hess)

"I'm just flattered to be picked," he said, noting there are others just as deserving.

Each year, the College presents the Kneedler Award to a member of the professional staff who "consistently goes 'above and beyond'" normal performance expectations, who demonstrates their commitment to the College's mission, and who is respected by colleagues and students.

Soft-spoken and self-effacing, O'Connell has worked in the art studios of the College since 1988. He said he was shocked when he was called to Old Main on April 11 and told by President Daniel Porterfield of the award, which requires a nomination from a member or members of the F&M community and review by a committee of professional staff.

"Rus is one of the most dedicated, organized, and quietly effective people I have ever worked with, someone who doesn't let the scale, scope or difficulty of a project intimidate him," said Eliza Reilly, director of the Phillips Museum.

Before coming to the College, O'Connell had been a flood plain engineer in Tucson, Ariz. He graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1979 with a degree in geology. He grew up in Pittsburgh.

While living on the West Coast, O'Connell became interested in wooden boats and studied books and traditional naval architecture. When he came to F&M, he opened a boat building shop in Lancaster, making traditional, single-mast Catboats for six years before selling the business.

By then O'Connell was comfortable with wood sculpting. He has an interest in three-dimensional objects. He learned metal sculpturing and dabbled in stone for his work with students at F&M.

His role at F&M has evolved as the art program developed into the Art and Art History Department while the museum grew in size and collections.

"I've been fortunate using my science background to develop this art background," O'Connell said. "There certainly is nowhere I could go to learn what I do."

O'Connell spends nine to 10 hours a week in the studio classrooms and also in the Phillips Museum, helping students who want to exhibit their work.

"If they ask for advice, I give it. If not, I let it run," he said. "We try to make it as professional an experience as the one they're going to get outside."

O'Connell's affinity with art has encouraged many students, as well as artists such as James Coupe, assistant professor in experimental art and digital media at the University of Washington and a former F&M postdoctoral fellow.

"He is a born teacher and mentor who really cares about our students and their learning," Reilly said, noting Coupe told her that he exhibited his work at the Phillips Museum earlier this year because of O'Connell. "He said Rus encouraged him." 

When not working with students on sculptures -- ranging from chewed bubble gum to wood -- O'Connell maintains the museum. He designs and constructs exhibit displays, has overseen three renovations in 10 years, and keeps up with new technology, such as the new LED lighting that has cut museum energy costs significantly.

"In a small museum, you wear many, many hats," he said.

On most weekends, O'Connell, who has a captain's license, is pursing another of his passions: sailing on the Chesapeake Bay in his 33-foot, single-mast sloop.

"If I'm free, I'm down there," he said.

O’Connell will walk the stage at the May 11 Commencement Ceremony to receive a citation that will be briefly read.