Harold Conner can tell you exactly how many stairs are in his Norman, Okla., home. He counts them each day, as he walks and continues to strengthen following a heart attack last year.
Originally designed and built by an architect who once lived there, the interior is somewhat reminiscent of an M.C. Escher work. Here and there, stairs lead to various levels throughout the house – a unique, somewhat abstract design that’s never quite what one would expect.
But it’s perfectly suited for the 88-year-old Conner, whose life has taken the self-described “country boy” and Joplin Junior College graduate from California to Chicago, and around the globe as a witness to the achievements of the world’s greatest athletes, including his own sons.
His family was originally from rural Oklahoma, but later moved to Webb City. In school, Harold played football and basketball, but was never what he considered to be a stand-out athlete.
While in high school, Conner began thinking about his future. He visited with a local architect to learn more about what the job entailed.
“When I got to Joplin Junior College, one of the things they had close to it was pre-engineering, so I took those courses,” he says.
At the time, the predecessor to Missouri Southern was housed in the former Joplin High School building at Fourth Street and Byers Avenue. Conner would try to catch a ride to class with a friend who had a car, or would take the bus for a nickel.
“It was a good school … the teachers made you study,” he says. “You couldn’t get by without doing homework every night.
Mathematics instructor Martha McCormick and chemistry teacher Eula Ratekin were both very important to his education, he said.
“I did very well … I wasn’t outstanding, but I was a good student,” he says.
After graduating with an associate’s degree from JJC in 1950, he went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the University of Kansas. Soon, opportunity – and a much warmer climate – came knocking.
“(My wife and I) went off to California,” he says. “North American Aviation offered me $500 a month to do structural engineering for them. That was the same salary my dad was making as a carpenter and stonemason, for my first job. We packed up and moved there for two years.”
A collection of model aircraft in his home showcases the projects he was involved in, from the Air Force’s experimental X-15 to the rocket engine mounts that would help put man on the moon.
“I was very lucky to be on the ground floor for new developments in the aviation program,” he says.
After a few years, he accepted a position with the Chicago-based Portland Cement Association, where he worked as an engineer and early computer programmer. He remained there for more than two decades, retiring as the company’s director of information systems.
He later accepted a position with the University of Oklahoma, where he helped create the School of Architecture’s construction science program, and then ran a consulting business after retiring again.
A full career, to be sure. But raising three sons born in a span of just 33 months kept his home life equally interesting.
Bruce, Bart and Michael developed an early affinity for indoor speed skating before their interests led them on different paths.
Bruce, a pilot for United Airlines, continued training as a speed skater. While he missed qualifying for the Olympics, he would go on to become – at 57 – the oldest man to qualify for the Olympic trials.
Bart, who took an interest in gymnastics, would go on to win two gold medals during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Calif. He later married Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci and created the Bart Conner Gymnastics Academy in Norman.
Michael, the youngest son, transitioned from skating to becoming a soccer standout and captain of his high-school team. He currently works as an electrical mechanical engineer in Chicago.
“We were just an ordinary family, but somehow the rivalry between the three boys allowed them to make themselves world champions,” says Conner. “They each got into their own field where they could use their own athletic abilities.”
Conner has attended nine summer Olympics over the years – including ’84 – and is looking forward to the 2020 games in Japan. To that end, his middle son makes it a point to keep his father moving as he continues to recover from his heart attack.
“I try to go over four or five days a week to have a cup of coffee or breakfast and then walk,” says Bart. “We try to keep as active as possible. He has a goal of going to the 2020 Olympics. Just like an athlete, we’ve got to train for that and improve his stamina and fitness.”