What was meant to be a three-week stint for a little extra vacation cash turned into a longtime friendship, a successful business partnership and the promise of a legacy to a dying friend.
On June 30, 2008, the ownership of O’Connor Landscaping – a business that has served homes and businesses in Cape May County for almost 30 years - changed hands. What’s interesting is was that it was to very, very familiar hands. John McLaughlin, a resident of Cape May Court House, now owns the very business where he has been employed for fifteen years. And the details behind his employment and recent purchase make for a beautiful story of friendship, dedication and tradition.
In 1979, Sea Isle City resident Joe O’Connor, then just 18 years old, scraped together the funds to purchase a lawn mower, broom, and some other equipment and literally walked the streets of town to earn money to purchase his dream car – a Chevy El Camino. Finding great success in the business (not to mention its ability to fund a car hobby), “O’Connor Landscaping” grew over the years to encompass hundreds of customers in Sea Isle City and all over Cape May County and at one point, even a garden center.
As a matter of fact, business for Joe O’Connor was so good that, in 1992, when he ran into his pal John McLaughlin, who was then pumping gas at a station outside of Sea Isle City, he mentioned that the upcoming Memorial Day Weekend was threatening to be a problem, what with the huge influx of summertime customers and work it brought. McLaughlin, who was soon headed to Cancun on a vacation, offered Joe his services for a few weeks to help get the summer season started, thinking the extra money would help pay for the trip in no time and since he already had landscaping experience from a part time job with another firm. However, he found that he loved the work so much that he stayed on with O’Connor Landscaping - and the other landscaper, as well - long after the promised few weeks had passed.
About three years later, after John got his Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Resource Management from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, Joe talked him into coming on board full time. The subsequent explosion of the real estate market afforded Joe and John the ability to grow the business significantly. However, even with the growth of the company and expanded services they were offering, it was not uncommon to see Joe still going from door to door in Sea Isle City to mow lawns, just like he did when he first started the business. However, these days, he was running – literally running – from lawn to lawn. The sight of this dedicated businessman sprinting around to customers’ homes in some of the hottest months of the year, seven days a week, was an amazing – if not an amusing – sight.
In the meantime, John’s knowledge and know-how grew along with the business – so much so that in 2007, he was approached by a local fence company to help start their new hardscaping division. As the real estate market had slowed down significantly, Joe and John agreed it was a good move for both of them. What they didn’t know is that John would be returning to the business in a matter of months.
Having suffered from worsening headaches over a couple of months, on Memorial Day Saturday in 2007, Joe O’Connor and his wife Louise visited the hospital for tests. Their worst fears were confirmed when doctors discovered that Joe – a runner, fitness nut, volunteer fireman, lifelong surfer and the picture of health for many people - had a malignant, fast growing brain tumor. Two days later, when John received the news, knowing the fight ahead of Joe and that, without him on the job, O’Connor Landscaping would shut down, leaving Joe without income and several employees out of work – he walked into the office of the owner of the company where he had just taken a job and said, “I’m sorry, but I quit. My friend needs me.”
That summer, Joe and Louise O’Connor focused wholly on treatment and medical care, travelling to leading cancer hospitals and facilities around the country, including Duke University, where Joe would undergo multiple surgeries. Meanwhile, with the help of some other friends who volunteered their time to help run the offices, John McLaughlin served as a familiar face to O’Connor Landscaping’s customers and the summer months passed as successfully as they had for 28 years.
In September of 2007, the day before Joe left for his second and final surgery at Duke, he called John on the phone. Five times in one day. Incredibly nervous and perhaps knowing what was to come, Joe asked John a question. “If something happens to me, would you be willing to take over the business? You don’t have to keep the name if you don’t want to, but please try and keep the way we do things the same and take care of our customers.”
While Joe O’Connor did lose his battle with cancer just two months later, his friend John, true to his word, continued to work for the business and just recently finalized the agreement to purchase it from Louise O’Connor. Since then, some things have changed– the phone number has been changed to (609) 624-2219 and John’s wife Lisa and sister Lauren now head up the office staff.
Much like in the past, the firm will focus on everything from lawns and maintenance to landscape designs, stones and pavers, however, new services are on the way, including waterfalls, ponds and exterior improvements (decks and such).
But the name – and the tradition behind the name – will stay exactly the same, something that John McLaughin will personally see to. And, in keeping with the tradition that started and continued with Joe O’Connor running from lawn to lawn to meet his customers’ needs – one of the first things John did was order a batch of t-shirts for customers and staff. On the front: the logo for O’Connor Landscaping. On the back, the simple but very poignant words: “The tradition RUNS on.”