You are now on Legacy.com. Your site use is governed by their Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy. Any purchases are with Legacy.com. Learn More
William Francis O'CONNOR
1926 - 2021
{ "" }
Share
Share William's life story with friends and family
Send an Email
Or Copy this URL to Share
WILLIAM FRANCIS O'CONNOR (Zeke) May 2, 1926 - March 6, 2021 Place of birth: Bronx, New York City, NY Devoted Family Man, Professional NFL and CFL Athlete, Retail Executive, Philanthropist, Founder of the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation Zeke passed away peacefully Saturday evening in Toronto, Canada. Without question, William (Zeke) O'Connor was a giant among men both in physical stature, and in the impressive way he chose to live his life. He gave more in life than he ever took and loved his family over all else. Born in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression, the 6'4' Zeke O'Connor was a recognized athlete at an early age. He attended Mt. St. Michael Academy where his football career began. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and his MBE from Columbia University. Zeke played football from 1944 - 1946 at Notre Dame, and went on to play at Great Lakes Naval Station in 1946. In 1948, Zeke was selected to play for the US College All Stars before going pro. His NFL career started in 1948 with the Buffalo Bills (All American Conference), followed by the Cleveland Browns (All American Conference Champions) in 1949, and finally in 1951 with the New York Yanks. In 1952 Zeke moved to Canada to play pro-football for the Toronto Argonauts, and was proud to have had a hand in helping the Argos secure the 1952 Grey Cup by catching the game-clinching touchdown. After retiring from football in 1953, Zeke began a long career with Sears Canada. From 1956 to 1981 Zeke was cast as color commentator on the CBC RADIO Grey Cup Series Broadcast, and between 1960 and 1972 he worked with CFRB, broadcasting commentary during Argo Football games. Later, in keeping with his affinity for sports, Zeke was named Honorary Coach for the 1986 Canadian Special Olympics Team. He had meanwhile founded Nepal's 1st Special Olympics Team, using his own funds. In 1973, Zeke met Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to summit Mount Everest, with whom he travelled while on merchandising assignments with Sears Canada. Their experiences inspired Zeke to establish The Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation of Canada, which became his life's passion, to help the Sherpa's help themselves. Since inception in 1976, the SEHF has raised millions to build much-needed infrastructures related to health, education, and the environment in the Solo Khumbu region of Nepal. In 2011 Zeke coauthored 'Journey with the Sherpas', The Story of Zeke O'Connor, and the Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation, published by Wintergreen Studios Press. With his daughter Karen at the helm as President, the Foundation continues its important work, raising funds to support projects in the region today. Throughout his life's journey, Zeke was bestowed many well-deserved accolades and awards, including receiving the Governor General's Sovereign Medal for his work with Special Olympics in Canada, the Ontario Sports Hall of Fame Sandy Hawley Award, the Life Time Achievement Award from the Rotary Club Toronto West, Inductee into The Etobicoke Sports Hall of Fame; the Harvey Foster Award from University of Notre Dame; the Man of The Year Award from The University of Notre Dame Monogram Club; the Special Olympics Honorary Life Member; the Golden Jubilee award from Himalayan Trust and the SEHF Nepal; the Paul Harris Fellowship for Humanitarian World Rotary Club Canada Award and the Presidents Award Variety Club Canada. Zeke would say, none were so humbling as the recent naming of 'The Zeke O'Connor Beyul Healing Garden' located behind the Kunde Hospital in the High Himalayas. This honor was conferred in recognition of Zeke's work with the Sherpas in administering medical scholarships to local recipients who have gone back after their studies abroad to work in their communities as doctors; and for the over 40 years his Foundation has funded the Hospital's Operation. The Zeke O'Connor High School, named in his honor, was built in 2010 with funds raised through the SEHF. The school teaches approximately 150 boys and girls from grades 8 through 12, allowing local students to complete their secondary education close to home and family, and is the only school in the region offering a STEM curriculum. He has left a larger-than-life shaped hole in the lives of those who loved him, including his three loving children Catherine Cole (Sam), Chris O'Connor (Micheline), and Karen O'Connor Kelson (Chris); 7 grandchildren, Jordan Jackson (Ben), Tyler Cole (Joey), Kassandra von Etzdorf (Peter), Philippa von Etzdorf (Andrew), and Justin von Etzdorf (Claire); Matthew O'Connor, Pam McMillan (Jim); 8 great-grandchildren Piper, Will, Caroline, Crosby and Rory, Logan, Cara, Emily, and many nieces and nephews. He is predeceased by his parents, William Francis O'Connor and Ada Klausman, and 5 siblings Jimmy, Ada, Charlie, Marie, and Ed, and is survived by one sister Ruth Hanretta, and he will be dearly missed by his companion of 10 years, Jeanne Cornacchia, and long-time close friend and wing man, Bob Kolbuc; as well as so many others, whose lives have been touched and continue to be enriched by the memory of Zeke and the legacy he leaves behind. A celebration of life will be held at a future date. Condolences Mt. Pleasant Cemetery online www.etouch.ca Donations in Zeke's Memory The Zeke O'Connor Memorial Fund Monetary donations currently being accepted by The Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation will be dedicated in support of the 'Zeke O'Connor High School', located in the village of Phaplu, in the Mount Everest region of Nepal. This accredited School was built in 2010 and teaches approximately 150 students from grades 8 through 12, enabling local children to complete their secondary education close to home and family. To donate please www.canadahelps.org/en/pages/zeke-oconnor-school-fund and visit their website at www.thesiredmundhillaryfoundation.ca or you may mail your contribution to: The Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation The Zeke O'Connor Memorial Fund 3-1750 The Queensway, Suite 1107 Etobicoke, ON M9C 5H5

To Plant Memorial Trees in memory, please visit our Sympathy Store.
Published in The Globe and Mail from Mar. 11 to Mar. 15, 2021.
Memories & Condolences
Not sure what to say?
18 entries
April 5, 2021
The Murphy and O’Connor relationship dates back to post WWII when two pairs of young newlyweds, embarking on their careers, had both moved into neighbouring Toronto apartments in a building on Eglinton Ave. near Bathurst St. The Murphy’s were impressed that the O’Connor’s had a TV and the O’Connor’s were wondering why Martin plugged his car into an electrical outlet on cold winter nights. This blossomed into a life-long friendship. Martin and Zeke clearly enjoyed one another’s company and would tease each other and carry on like silly kids when they met.

Their friendship expanded to include whole family gatherings at the farms in Hudson Heights, Quebec and Meadowvale near Toronto. Hosting the Murphy clan for a day was no little feat. However, it always turned into a fun and memorable great day for both parents and kids alike. Reuniting friendships with a glass of wine by the fire or zooming through the fields on Skidoos towing skiers and toboggans, the friendship quickly expanded to the children. This continued meeting for ski days north of Toronto.

Our families have continued to cross paths over the years; Zeke joining Lambton for many rounds of golf with Martin, meeting Sears sports celebrities, hearing tales of Nepal and Everest, or supporting the Hilary Foundation and Special Olympics. We were happy to see Zeke at Martin’s 90th birthday party a few years ago. He went out of his way to comment on how much he enjoyed time spent with Martin and Jane – called them special people.

Zeke was someone who once you met did not forget. His positive manner and enthusiasm were infectious. He was always interested in what you were up to and would share some anecdotes from his activities since we last met. He was a celebrity in his own rite and we always sought out his CFL football colour commentary on radio or TV. It is sad that another member of the great generation has passed on. We will miss him, but not forget him.

The Murphy family
The Martin & Jane Murphy Family
Friend
April 4, 2021
Kate, Chris, Karen and your families,
I was so saddened to hear of your father's passing. Please accept my sincerest condolences for your loss. I will always remember him as a friendly giant, he was always so nice to me. The Burtons
Greg Burton
Friend
March 24, 2021
Zeke was an amazing individual. He accomplished so much during his lifetime that I was constantly amazed with his spirit and passion. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his stories about Sir Edmund Hillary, the foundation, the celebrities that he met, his football career and joining him at Argo Alumni events and lunches at Kingsway Fish and Chips. I first met Zeke at the Manor where he was a neighbour of my mother. We had a connection right away as we both played with the Toronto Argonauts and he was my uncle's football coach at the Balmy Beach Club. I will truly miss Zeke and so glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy his company.
Tim Allan
March 19, 2021
To Karen and Family, we are honoured to have met Zeke and we express our condolences for your loss. He was a truly remarkable man with diverse and exceptional talents and interests. ....The Pepalls
Bill Pepall
Neighbor
March 18, 2021
Our thoughts and Prayers are with all Zeke's family during these very sad days. A great man with a heart as big as he was. Everybody loved the Zeke. We will miss him forever and may you Rest in Peace Zeke.
Duke and Jeanne Stregger
Friend
March 16, 2021
Rest in peace Father
Leonard Jones
Friend
March 16, 2021
I worked with Zeke at Sears from the late 70's to early 80's. He was truly one of the nicest men I have had the pleasure to work with. I have so many fond memories of my time in his department.
He led an incredible life outside the office and touched the lives of so many people. May he rest in peace of a life well lived. Our condolences.
Phil & Cathy Lasagna
Phil Lasagna
Coworker
March 14, 2021


In my life I have met some great, wonderful people, people who made me feel so good about myself, people accepted and loved me as I am, and Zeke was one of them.
Zeke was always smiling, always full of energy, I wish I will always remember you, even in my old days when I don't remember much from life, because you are one of the few people who influenced my life in the right direction.
See you in paradise Champion because we still have a lot of work to do.
I love you and I will miss you Zeke. Thank for adding my name to your book, the best gift ever.
Goddess and R.I.P
Stanley Blaise Regis
Friend
March 13, 2021
We were so very saddened to learn of Zeke’s passing.
May his memory remain a blessing to all whose lives he touched with his kindness, compassion and warmth. Unique in his determination to put his compassion into action, he lifted and empowered so many.
He was a truly remarkable man who will be deeply missed.
Anne Hildebrand and family
Friend
March 13, 2021
Lots of memories of a wonderful man - at Sears, & in Nepal in mid 1980s with Ed ,Mike Eagan & our son David. Deepest sympathy to family.
Maureen Farr-Eagan
Friend
March 12, 2021
Bitter sweet ..memories are awesome as my son TJ and I trekked with Zeke to the celebration of 50 years of the foundation. Zeke left a everlasting imprint on me and more importantly my 16 year old son TJ. Our condolences and thoughts and prayers to all the O’Connor family.
Todd Millar
Friend
March 11, 2021
Zeke was a wonderful, loveable, energetic man. He was dedicated to his Family, his Sport, Sears and the Hilary Foundation.

He seemed to be always busy and on the go; but, never to busy to stop and chat, listen and make you feel better about life.

God bless Zeke and his Family.
Janet & Brent Hollister
Friend
March 11, 2021
Some people lived such full lives.
Zarubin Singh
Acquaintance
March 11, 2021
May you rest in peace and enjoy the company of the O'Connor clan that were waiting for you in Heaven. God speed Uncle Zeke...
Ruth Purcell
Family
March 11, 2021
Zeke was a kind, caring, funny person, a very gentle giant that will be greatly missed ❤
Louise Ehrkamp
Friend
March 11, 2021
Thank you Zeke for all you have done
Virginia Elliott
Friend
March 11, 2021
You will be greatly missed, a great friend with many fond memories. I will think of you often, the times we have had in Nepal, on the golf course, at the fundraising dinners and on the telephone.
Edward Lorriman
Friend
March 11, 2021
Zeke was one of a kind--athlete, adventurer, and raconteur. A force of life with a warm personality and humanitarian spirit. He will be missed, but remembered fondly, by many. His legacy will live on.
Peter Adamson
Friend
Invite others to add memories
Share to let others add their own memories and condolences