Tom Archdeacon: Local adventurist spearheads UD Arena project

That big, toothy barracuda who charged Larry Connor as he was coming up from a 65-foot free dive in the ocean waters off the Bahamas last summer soon learned what everybody else has when they have doubted, dismissed or attempted to deny the real estate and technology entrepreneur and an around-the-world adventurist from Sugarcreek Township.

Spearfishing in deep waters, Connor had shot a sizable hog snapper and was bringing it to the surface when the hungry barracuda arrived.

“At about 40 feet the barracuda decided he wanted my fish to eat,” Connor said. “That’s the deepest I had ever gone to shoot a fish and I was bound and determined to get him to the surface. He was on a line and the barracuda and I wrestled over him.”

The outcome is captured in one of the many amazing photos Connor has mounted on the wall of his office at The Connor Group headquarters on 741 at Austin Boulevard.

Connor is seen on the dock, wet hair matted, a smile on his face and the head and some of the hog snapper’s body cradled in his hands.

That never-give-up attitude can be seen in another image just to the right of the fish photo. It shows Connor at the wheel of a Formula One car during a race at Road America in Wisconsin. And if you look closely — near the undercarriage — you see the photographer has captured an orange glow coming from the rear of the car.

“The back end is on fire,” Connor said with a grin. “One of the brake lines had severed and it was spewing oil all over the engine. I was gonna lose the brakes and the whole back end would catch on fire and I’d end up crashing.”

But if you think that thwarted his racing career, think again.

He’s won over 70 races in the United States, was the two-time national champion in Formula Atlantic racing, held track records at various places, has run the fabled endurance races at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring and has made an even bigger splash recently in off-road racing.

Competing in the Truck Spec class, he’s won the Baja 1000 in Mexico twice, the Baja 500 twice and in 2015 he won all five races in the SCORE off-road racing series.

And to complete the “don’t quit” theme, go to another photo on the far right side of the wall collage.

Captured there is a whitewater raft that has been flipped almost on end by the churning waters of Drangme Chhu River in the Himalayan Mountains of Bhutan. It was in 2009 and it was the first descent ever of the river by a group of rafters.

The guy most submerged in the photo is Connor, who’s at one end of the boat.

“Things really went wrong from there,” he said. “The boat capsized and three people were injured. But the Kiwi who ran the expedition and I were able to get our ropes and flip ourselves on top of the raft. The rest of the folks were in for a long swim.”

That’s the way the 67-year-old Connor has tackled life — pulling his weight and often the weight of others in an attempt to keep the boat afloat. Many times that has ended up with a voyage no one dreamed could happen.

An early example came when he was a mostly overlooked student at St. Albert’s grade school. He admitted he “had issues,” and some teachers told his parents they should consider trade school for him because he likely wasn’t college material.

And although he did leave Alter High School with just a 2.0 grade-point average, he ended up at Ohio University, where he graduated in 1972 summa cum laude and today his real estate investment firm has over $2 billion in assets with luxury apartments in a dozen cities across the country.

The “don’t sell yourself or others short” mantra resonates most in his and his wife Chris’ 24-year-old son Colin, who was born with Down syndrome.

“I missed the birth,” Connor said quietly. “I’d been on a business trip in Florida and didn’t get back in time.

“When I walked into the hospital, I was told, ‘Aaah…well…there’s something wrong. He has Down syndrome.’

“It was fairly traumatic, but so many things in life are about choices. I didn’t know anything about Down syndrome then, but I remember going downstairs and buying a teddy bear. I said, ‘I’m gonna give him this and it’s going to be the start of something great. We’re going to make something out of it.’ ”

He said primarily because of the nurturing love of Chris, his wife of 36 years and a special education teacher herself, Colin has turned out to be “one of the greatest things that ever happened in our lives.”

Colin now works two jobs — in the athletic equipment room at UD and at Karen’s Pooch Parlor in Bellbrook — and he has become a standout basketball player in the Polar Bear League for kids with disabilities.

He’s also his dad’s sidekick. They work out together — under the tutelage of strength coach Joe Owens, a UD associate athletics director — at the fully-equipped gym in The Connor Group headquarters.

And while Colin has even showed some skills on the blackjack tables in the Bahamas, the place he blossoms the most is at UD Arena, where he sits courtside with his dad at every game and often can be seen standing and dancing to the music when he’s not cheering the Flyers.

That connection to UD, in part, is why Connor took on the monumental task of leading the drive to raise private funds for the $72 million, three-year renovation of UD Arena.

Connor was tasked with raising $25 million of the total, an amount that twice has been recalculated and ended up being $33 million. After making a substantial donation himself, he had to convince others to do the same.

“There were people who said, ‘Oh, you’re never going to be able to do that,’ ” Connor recalled. “I said, ‘Sure we can.’ ”

As he’s said before, “Whenever we hear the word ‘impossible,’ we’re all in.”

While they made the initial goals, he admitted the $33 million hasn’t quite been reached yet.

“We’re really close, and believe me, we’re going to get there,” he promised.

University of Dayton athletics director Neil Sullivan, who is guiding much of the renovation with former AD Tim Wabler, said when Connor took a lead role “a transformative project” got the “transformative partner” it needed:

“Larry’s partnership and investment really accelerated the conversation from incremental to a long-term generational impact,” Sullivan said. “The fact that he came on board helped in the community so we could say, ‘Hey, we have someone who believes in this, who has studied it and been with us a couple of years to review it.’ That helped bring other people on board.”

As for his commitment to the project, Connor explained:

“We did it first for the community, not UD. The Arena and the basketball program, whether it’s socially or economically, I just really believe it’s good for the area.”

Proof of that has come in his business dealings, he said:

“We own apartment communities in major cities all across the United States and invariably, when we go into a city, whether it’s Dallas, Denver, Austin, wherever, as soon as you tell them you’re from Dayton, they go: ‘Oh yeah, University of Dayton basketball!’

“In my opinion, that’s a really good calling card and a real positive image.”

Flew relief missions

Connor’s mix of drive and empathy may come straight from the lessons of his parents.

He said Harry, his dad, was a highly-decorated World War II Marine who “fought in several of the famed battles and ended up with a Silver Star, the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts and a distinguished service award.”

Barbara, his mom, went back to school at 66, he said, got a master’s degree in social work at Wright State and was involved in civil rights work and efforts with minorities and disadvantaged members of the community.

In the late 1970s, Connor’s first business venture came when he and two partners opened Newcom’s Tavern in the Oregon District. By 1981, he had started a microcomputer business in Orlando and over the next decade expanded it across central Florida.

In 1991 he formed Connor, Murphy and Berman — which soon focused solely on apartment complex acquisition — and a dozen years later he bought out his partners and launched his own investment firm, The Connor Group.

Along with his success has come a commitment to give back, often through the Connor Group Kids and Community Partners arm of his business.

“We have several core beliefs here and one is if you’re really successful, you ought to share the wealth,” he said. “Another of our values is ‘Do the right thing’ and there’s also ‘People count.’ ”

And it’s not just words with him. The company has given extensively to places like Dayton Children’s hospital and the Mayo Clinic. In 2010, Connor, a pilot himself, flew relief missions into Haiti after the earthquake.

Just last week he loaned his private jet for a marathon relief effort to Puerto Rico after the total destruction there by Hurricane Maria.

His three pilots — Brett Hunter, Russ Hunter and Shawn Riffee — flew several trips to the island, bringing in supplies and evacuating people..

“They brought out 29 people,” he said quietly. “Most of them with serious medical issues.”

UD ‘does it right’

The other evening I sat down with Connor for an hour at the end of a busy day for him.

Along with his usual business concerns, he had spent the morning up at the Cleveland Clinic on another project and then devoted part of the day to learning how to fly the helicopter he had recently purchased.

We met at his company headquarters, an $18 million facility whose stunning design and surrounding reflective pools have won several architectural awards since it opened in 2014.

On the second floor — above the gym where one of the company’s dogs was lounging next to a few people in a yoga class — Connor’s office is decorated with the photo gallery and a lot of colorful artwork, especially a large flower piece by the late, highly-acclaimed Native American artist Fritz Scholder, whose “Orchids and Other Flowers” project was his answer to 9/11.

Connor, by the way, spends plenty of time in the gym, working out seven to nine times a week, doing everything from weight and cardio exercises to Baptiste Power Yoga — often with Colin sweating alongside him.

Connor’s favorite photo among all those shots of his adventure treks — along with racing and spear fishing he has competed in aerobatic championships with his plane, has climbed Mt, Kilimanjaro and Mt. Rainier, rafted the Zambezi River in Africa and the Futaleufu in Chile — is the image of a young and earnest Colin, with outstretched arms, in the crowd at a UD basketball game.

“Initially I had started supporting the entrepreneurial programs at the university and wasn’t involved in athletics,” Connor said. “Finally, I started going to games and like everybody became a fan. Then Colin started going with me and he really got into it and became a huge fan.

“I like it, like I said, because it’s good for our community, but also because I think UD does it the right way and graduates its kids. And with the debacle going on now in college basketball, you know not everybody competes within the rules.

“And the thing is, I believe this can truly be an elite program here. Archie (Miller) did a phenomenal job in driving that and I think that’s not only sustainable, but that it can go to an even higher level.”

He said it’s not about the renovations to the arena, though he believes if someone hasn’t been to the arena in 15 or 20 years, once the three-year project is completed in November 2019, “they’ll think we built a new arena, not just renovated it.”

He said the real key to the program’s rise is “the university’s commitment and leadership team.”

As for new coach Anthony Grant, he said he doesn’t know him well but has been impressed by what he’s seen and learned:

“He doesn’t have the same personality as Archie, he’s a little more quiet, but he has resolve and character and backbone. And I think those characteristics will hold him in good stead.”

As we wrapped up our conversation, he mentioned that in the morning he was flying out to Las Vegas, then driving on to Primm, a small place on the Nevada-California line where he would spend two days testing a new 4-wheel drive Trophy Truck, which he is going to campaign on next year’s off-road desert circuit.

And that begged a final question.

So what does his wife think of all these flirtations with danger and derring-do?

“Let’s see, how do I handle this diplomatically,” he said choosing his words carefully.

“She is not a fan of certain of my endeavors, but she knew the package she was getting right from the start.”

Then lowering his voice, he made an admission: “And sometimes I just don’t ask her first.”

Sometimes — when you’re facing a tougher challenge than a hungry barracuda or a raging river — that’s the only way to survive.

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