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Joseph P. O’Grady, storyteller, author, and former history professor at La Salle, dies at 87

He spent 40 years teaching on Olney Avenue, and his motto was "my role is to serve.”

Dr. O'Grady and his wife Connie were married for 62 years.
Dr. O'Grady and his wife Connie were married for 62 years.Read moreCourtesy of the Family

Joseph P. O’Grady, 87, of Glen Mills, a former history professor at La Salle University, author, proud Irish American, and storyteller who created Orangehead Harry and Billy the Bluebird, died Sunday, Aug. 15, of a stroke at Riddle Hospital in Media.

Dr. O’Grady completed a 40-year tenure at La Salle when he retired in 1999. During those years, he rose from history instructor to professor, served as history department chairman and on the faculty senate, and invited students, other professors, and anyone else he encountered to join him on various exploits in his “search for truth.”

“He was a hard-charging guy,” said his son Pat. “He did everything at hyper speed, at 100%. He was always anxious to get to the next thing.”

At La Salle, Dr. O’Grady helped found the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations in 1967, and, focusing on his rich Irish heritage, wrote How the Irish Became Americans (The Immigrant heritage of America series), which was published in 1973. He wrote several other books and articles about history, religion, and politics.

He organized the Maurice Francis Egan Lecture series in 1963, and later published the talks as The Immigrants’ Influence on Wilson’s Peace Policies. He was active with the Pickwick Club for intellectual conversations, among other groups, and spent many nights during the 1960s and 1970s at the Palestra as a La Salle basketball season-ticket holder.

“His motto was ‘my role is to serve,’” said his daughter Karen. “And he didn’t just talk about it. He did it.”

Born June 13, 1934, in Germantown to parents who had emigrated from County Mayo, Ireland, Dr. O’Grady embraced his background and traveled often to Ireland for research and family visits. One of six children, his father died when Dr. O’Grady was 14, and his mother died when he was 43. So he and his siblings made sure to stay as close as possible as they grew older.

He graduated from Northeast Catholic High School in 1952 and from La Salle in 1956. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and began teaching history at La Salle in 1959.

He joined the Army ROTC program as a student at La Salle, and graduated as a second lieutenant. After a short active tour, he spent 28 years in the U.S. Army Reserve, working often on classified projects at the Pentagon and U.S. Army War College at Fort Leavenworth and Fort Carlisle when he wasn’t teaching.

He retired from the Reserve in 1984 as a lieutenant colonel.

Dr. O’Grady was active at Annunciation BVM in Havertown, and St. Anastasia Church in Newtown Square. He liked to “take care of my land” as a home gardener, and he created intricate stories for his children and grandchildren about, among other things, creatures who lived under the boardwalk, and characters such as Billy the Bluebird and Orangehead Harry.

And he was practical.

“Don’t look for the big victory,” Dr. O’Grady said in a 2008 interview with La Salle University Digital Commons. “Don’t look for a big promotion. Just take it little steps at a time and you get your victories. You get your share.”

In addition to his son and daughter, Dr. O’Grady is survived by his wife of 62 years, Connie; daughters Noreen and Michelle; son Michael; two sisters; one brother; 15 grandchildren; three great-grandchildren; and other relatives. Two brothers died earlier.

Services are Friday, Aug. 20, at 10:30 a.m. at St. Anastasia Church, 3301 West Chester Pike, Newtown Square, Pa. 19073. Burial is to follow at Calvary Cemetery of West Conshohocken, 235 East Matsonford Rd., Conshohocken, Pa. 19428.

Donations in his name may be made to the Maris Grove scholars fund, Maris Grove Office of Philanthropy, 200 Maris Grove Way, Glen Mills, Pa.19342.