Feb. 27, 2014 at 10:56 PM ET
With his short gray hair, watchful eyes, authoritative voice and stern manner, high school math teacher and Vietnam veteran Jim O'Connor is used to commanding respect in the classroom. So his students were surprised to learn about his nickname at the hospital where he volunteers: the baby whisperer.
O’Connor, who teaches algebra and calculus at St. Francis High School in La Cañada, Calif., a Catholic prep school for boys in suburban Los Angeles, takes a no-nonsense approach to schooling.
“If you have a class full of 32 teenage boys, you better have some discipline,” O’Connor told TODAY Moms. “If you don’t have control of the class, you don’t have a learning environment.”
Tender and loving is not the side his students generally see, so they were recently surprised to find out O’Connor is a “TLC Volunteer” at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, where he has spent several days a week for the past 20 years cuddling sick babies.
O’Connor was first drawn to the hospital by a friend who asked him to take part in a blood drive.
With Type O negative blood — which is precious because it can be transfused into any patient — he kept returning to give blood and platelets, eventually becoming the hospital’s top donor. He's given 72 gallons of blood so far.
During his visits, O’Connor kept seeing volunteers helping sick children, so he asked how he could take part and was encouraged to volunteer himself.
That’s when the tough math teacher, who is not married and doesn’t have kids of his own, found his other calling: comforting babies who seem to take to him as much as he takes to them.
“He holds them, feeds them, walks around with them, gets to know them and he can always coax a smile out of them,” said registered nurse Sherry Nolan, the clinical manager of the medical unit at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“They just stare at him adoringly and he can really just get the crabbiest baby to calm down. It’s amazing… He’s just a natural-born cuddler.”
O’Connor said he was a little nervous holding the babies at first, not knowing much about them and worried about dislodging tubes attached to the ill children. But even though he’s not a dad, he has lots of nieces and nephews and he has always enjoyed being around infants.
“They’re beautiful; they’re just dependent on people. They can do no wrong,” O’Connor said.
Nolan marveled at his “special touch,” speculating his deep voice might be comforting to the babies as they lie against his chest, but O’Connor insisted there’s nothing magical about his approach. The infants relax because there’s someone holding them, he said.
O’Connor is drawn to the babies who don’t have visitors. Some parents can’t come very often because they live far away, have to work or have other kids at home they have to take care of, he said. Other times, the babies may be on a “hospital hold” — waiting to be placed in foster care because they were neglected or abused.
“The kids who have nobody, those are the ones who obviously need volunteers a lot,” O’Connor said. “They just want to be held by somebody.”
He also helps out with the older kids and has been known to play soccer in the hallway with a young patient who’s bored, said Erin Schmidt, a nurse at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“Jim is invaluable to us,” Schmidt said.
“I can’t image working without him,” added Nolan. “We really do depend on him.”
O’Connor grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. and became an engineer. His career includes three years in the U.S. Navy, when he served in Vietnam on the USS Enterprise. He’s been a teacher for 38 years and now works part time and spends the other days at the hospital.
His students at St. Francis High School knew little about his other job as a volunteer cuddler, finding him anything but cuddly.
“Everybody thinks he's being really mean” until they get used to his teaching style, senior Pat McGoldrick told the Los Angeles Times.
But when McGoldrick visited the hospital as part of a school blood drive last year, he was amazed to discover his stern teacher’s softer side.
"He was like a celebrity there. Everybody knew his name," he told the newspaper.
Word spread, and not just at the school. After years of quietly volunteering, O’Connor is now getting national attention for his work. He noticed that after a CBS News video about him was played at St. Francis recently, a couple of kids who had never spoken to him before said hello. He said he puts up with reporters and interviews in hopes his students are inspired to get involved as well.
“If they’ve gotten something out of it, that’s the main thing,” O’Connor said. “If there are more people wanting to donate blood, wanting to volunteer, then that’s great.”