The Profile

Kevin O'Connor '90

The Emmy-nominated television host talks about his responsibility toward viewers, his love of power tools and the O'Connor DIY legacy

By Debra Steilen

Now in his 11th year as host of the two home improvement series, "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House," Kevin O'Connor '90 laughs as he talks about his 8-year-old son's recent school assignment. "He was supposed to fill in the blank with a word that describes what his father does for a living," O'Connor says. "He said his daddy is a carpenter. Clearly he has no appreciation for what I really do."

So what is O'Connor's actual occupation? His 2004 Daytime Emmy nomination was in the category of "service show host." But that label really isn't accurate, he observes. The term "TV star" isn't a good fit either. "I feel closer to being a broadcast journalist," O'Connor says. "I'm like the guy who conducts the sit-down interview, except I do it on the job site wearing work boots. I ask probing questions the audience wants to hear. I'm looking out for the consumer."

As a consumer advocate, O'Connor prepares for TOH's two major renovation projects each year by working with subject-matter experts. Such research helps O'Connor get relevant, easy-to-understand answers from the interviewees. "It's my job to win people's trust so they can be articulate themselves," he explains. "And it's my job to make sure they're not BSing the audience."

After more than 10 years on the show, O'Connor says he's exponentially more knowledgeable, which means his questions have gone from broad curiosity to a more critical analysis. "I used to ask things like 'What's a geothermal system?' Now I demand an answer as to why geothermal systems are superior," he says. "It has taken the conversation to a deeper, richer place."

O'Connor's role as consumer advocate means he's serving as a "man for others"---as Holy Cross students have done for the past 170 years. And what's also true is he hasn't changed much since his days in Mulledy Hall, where he watched "This Old House" when others wanted to watch sports. He was also the guy who liked all his classes. "I loved the liberal arts approach: the diverse education and the focus on being a spiritual person, a critical thinker and an articulate communicator," O'Connor says. "But nothing I took ever suggested I would end up in front of a camera."

In fact, the strongest predictor of his future career took place in Mulledy. It was there that he and his buddies put four beds in one dorm room, leaving the other room empty. So O'Connor grabbed his power tools and built a bar-complete with shelves for mugs. "At Holy Cross, my job was to hit the books and study," he says. "But when I wasn't doing that, I was making sawdust in my dorm room-illegally." (It's worth noting that such creative residence hall construction would be discouraged-and dismantled-these days!)

He eventually moved off-campus to share a house with several students, including Mike Casey '90. Years later, when O'Connor left his banking job to join "This Old House," it was Casey (a double major in history and fine arts working in advertising) who urged him to work on building his brand. And it was Casey, by then the principal of Casey Photography, whom O'Connor turned to in 2007 for help creating a book showcasing homes from "This Old House."

"After 16 weeks on the same project, viewers only get to see the finished work for the last half of the last episode," O'Connor says. "I knew a book would give us the chance to show beautiful pictures so people could slowly and repeatedly enjoy these spaces."

O'Connor and Casey spent more than three years photographing the projects as well as the craftsmen and designers involved. "Houses don't get built by guys who talk," O'Connor notes. "All I did was chronicle the work of other people." Thousands of images were whittled down to 270 for The Best Homes from This Old House (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2011).

 "What comes through in the book is Kevin's interpretation of his favorite homes since he's been on the show," Casey says. "I scouted each location, asking him questions to get a sense of what he wanted to get across. 'What makes this house unique?' 'What's special about "This Old House" craftsmanship that we need to communicate?' I photographed to his story and he wrote to my photographs. I think what we developed works beautifully with the TOH brand and what the show is about."

O'Connor says he's not sure yet if there's a second book, although he and Casey continue to take photographs. But meanwhile, he fills his schedule by co-hosting "This New House" with Amy Matthews-a DIY Network series focusing on innovative building materials, techniques and gadgets. He serves on the editorial board of This Old House magazine. And he keeps his power tools plenty busy. He and his wife, Kathleen, completely remodeled an 1894 Queen Anne. Their second house is not a fixer-upper, he emphasizes. "When we bought it, there were two things on the list," he recalls. "A backyard big enough for whiffle ball. And home projects I could work on, but didn't have to work on."

Plus, he and Kathleen have three kids who need to be introduced to the O'Connor DIY legacy. When he was a child, O'Connor built tree houses, go-carts and even his own skateboard under the tutelage of his dad, a civil engineer. As a young man he worked at his father's skyscrapers and airports. "Dad walked around the job with blueprints and specs," O'Connor says. "I was taken with hammers, nails and sawdust ... a very different passion."

He's helping his kids build a tree house in the back yard right now. "Just like my dad did with my four brothers, two sisters and me," O'Connor says. "I want my children to see up close and personal that you can build things yourself."  ■


Quick Questions with Kevin

Q   What's next for "This Old House"? 

A   My hope is that we deal with a Hurricane Sandy recovery project in 2013. More homes and more people were affected by this storm than any other storm in our country's history. Plus, I grew up in New Jersey and have lots of family still there, which makes it a personal story for me.


Q   What is your favorite power tool? 

A   Oh, man, I have a new table saw. I love it because it sits on a collapsible stand with wheels. That's important because I don't have a job site at home where I can leave tools up for six months. My table saw needs to be put away; now I can drag it back to the shed after every day of building a tree house.


Q   Home center: What's your favorite aisle?

A   The one with the moldings; they're wrapped boxes of chocolate to me. Crown molding, baseboard molding: They're like little pieces of artwork with beautiful little flourishes like fluting and dentils and Greek keys, all just sort of laid out in a row. 


Q   Today's master baths: Power shower or soaking tub?

A   Power shower all the way. The biggest folly of American homes is the deep soaking tub;
they're never used, can barely be filled and take up tons of space.


Q   What's the top remodeling trend today? 

A   I think there's been a retrenchment of green remodeling. So I'd say the open floor plan. We continue to connect adjoining spaces and deconstruct the older, traditional uses of particular rooms.