February 14, 2022


Growing up on a ranch in South Texas, T. Michael O’Connor’s youth was spent in a saddle. Under a wide-brimmed Stetson, his eyes were continuously scanning the horizon for threats to his family’s herd. Hard work was learned young, and leisure was a foreign concept. Between school and the ranch, there was always something that needed doing. Even as a boy, he understood that the privilege of living on this blessed land came with a deep responsibility for it—for the water, the soil, the grass, the animals and its whole web of interdependent life. His job was to steward the land, to care for it and to pass it on to the next generation.

O’Connor ’77 learned to equate work with joy and self with service. He developed keen observational and decision-making skills, as well as a cowboy mentality of determination, discipline and grit.

U.S. Marshal T. Michael O’Connor ’77 has enjoyed a 40-year career in law enforcement, 16 of which were spent as the sheriff of Victoria County.

“Out there, you’re on your own,” O’Connor said. “You have to improvise and take care of ranch matters as you see fit, the best way you can. You make mistakes, then live and learn by those mistakes. All of that accumulates into who you are—your character.”

Years have passed, but the essentials of this cowboy have not changed.

Today, O’Connor is a U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Texas. He’s still scanning the horizon for threats and checking fence lines, but the herd he is protecting has grown to include the several million people who live in his district from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley. The threats are bigger now: human trafficking, drugs and cybercrimes being just a few.

“It takes a lifetime to build integrity. It takes a split second to lose it forever.”
- T. Michael O'Connor '77

From FBI SWAT training to Civil Air Patrol Emergency Services and Counter-Drug certifications, O’Connor has invested in his community by completing more than 4,000 hours of law enforcement training in areas such as patrol, supervision, criminal law, jail operations, investigation, professionalism, ethics and leadership.

Leadership came naturally to him, as he learned it first on horseback. Leading people or leading horses—both are about listening and clear communication. “You have to be observant and determined that the outcome will be positive no matter what it is or how big the challenges are,” he said. He also became a student of leadership, enthusiastically poring over books on the topic. However, his most memorable leadership lesson came from an “old timer” on the family ranch. “He told me, ‘Just remember to always ride with your cowboys.’ I think that was the best advice I ever received.”

Justice is Coming

That teamwork mentality has been a bedrock of his career. O’Connor has served his community, his county, his state and country with much distinction in the last four decades. He currently oversees about 200 deputy marshals in offices across the southern district of Texas as well as operations in Mexico and Colombia. “I send marshals all over the world to pursue violent fugitives who have absconded, and we bring them back to justice,” he said.

The day to day in this line of work is “predictably unpredictable,” he added. As the marshal administrator, he deals with personnel issues and policy and procedural matters, as well as assisting marshals in the field. Policing has changed some through the years, but O’Connor said his core values of leadership, integrity and selfless service—learned on the ranch and reinforced at Texas A&M—“will never, ever become obsolete.”

There have been times when O’Connor has been forced to discipline officers under him who did not maintain the highest level of integrity. “I was relentless on this, because I did not want to compromise myself as a leader in the community. My role is to be a champion for those who cannot be a champion for themselves,” he said. As he mentors the next generation of leaders in the force, he’s trying to pass on one lesson above all others: “It takes a lifetime to build integrity. It takes a split second to lose it forever.”

Legacy of Conservation

O’Connor’s great-great-grandfather, Thomas O’Connor, immigrated from Ireland in 1834 and was the first of the family to call South Texas home. “He was the youngest person to fight in the Battle of San Jacinto,” he said, with evident pride at his direct connection to the final decisive battle of the Texas Revolution. Thus began a family legacy of protecting the land—a legacy O’Connor continues today.

“As the ranching industry diminishes, it is imperative that institutions like Texas A&M continue to be leaders in research and development and act as a credible resource for those who have questions,” O’Connor added. He wants to see greater collaboration between industry and academia and an open dialogue about how to improve and protect this way of life. Because when it comes down to it, “We need each other to survive,” he said.

Survival will require change. That doesn’t bother O’Connor. In fact, he’s ready to lead the charge for new ideas in the cattle industry and in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “I used to hear from old timers, ‘That’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Well, that sounds good, but can we do it better?”

In policing and in ranching, O’Connor isn’t afraid to speak his mind or to challenge the status quo. “I tell it like it is,” he said. “That’s the cowboy way.”

The Cowboy Way

"I tell it like it is. That's the cowboy way."
- T. Michael O'Connor '77

O’Connor chuckles when asked what he does for fun. “I’m a plow horse,” he said. “I’ll plow my field for which I am responsible, and if you don’t stop me, I’ll plow your field and keep on going.”

Fun? He loves what he does. For him, work and fun are as entwined as leadership and integrity. In the hours when he isn’t building safer communities in his day job, he’s building his family and caring for his land. While his children, Thomas O’Connor ’11 and Jane Crawford ’05, both have careers outside of agriculture, he is intentional about involving them in the ranch. “I told my children it matters not where you go and what you do in your life, but your heart and soul need to remain on the ranch and be a part of that legacy and carry it on,” he said. Annually, O’Connor and his wife, LuAnn, host their children and friends for a week of cowboy camp they call O’Frontier Days, a celebration of the land and their family.

While the challenges ahead for the next generation on the ranch are immense, O’Connor has hope when he sees his children learning to love the land as he does. “It couldn’t be a better world,” he said with a smile.

If you’d like to learn more about supporting the Center for Grazinglands and Ranch Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences or supporting the Thomas M. O’Connor Professorship in Range Science, contact Scott Jarvis ’00 at the bottom of this page.

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