Featured Alumnus: Richard Connell ’74


Featured Alumnus: Richard Connell ’74

Featured Alumnus: Richard Connell ’74

Like many of his classmates, Rich Connell ’74 is looking forward to his upcoming 50-year reunion. While it’s a bit shocking to realize it’s been that long since the ceremonial walk (in the pre-Alumni Gate era) through Eagle Archway into the Quad, there’s an exciting anticipation in seeing your brothers again. “I’m hoping to see people come back. I’ve always found that you really just pick up where you left off,” Rich says. “Although it’s hard to get my head around that it’s already been 50 years.”

Unlike many of his classmates, however, Rich is also a former teacher at Avon Old Farms, which adds another element of enjoyment to Avon reunions, which are always open to all class years. “There’s an added joy in seeing some of my former students.” 

After receiving his degree in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Rich returned to the Farm to join Gail Laferriere and the art department to teach photography and architecture classes. He taught at Avon for a decade. “We expanded the architecture program, and a few of my students have gone on to do great things in the profession.” Chris Stone ’88, for example, credits Rich with being a mentor during his time at Avon. Stone has achieved monumental things in the field of architecture, earning himself the most recent Distinguished Alumnus Award from Avon Old Farms. For Rich, the inspirational guidance he provided students like Stone was the same he received from Gail during his high school studies. “I thought I wanted to go into teaching, but that started to change my senior year. Gail felt I should pursue a career in the arts, but my family and I weren’t sure. Back then there was a program where in the last trimester of your senior year you could work on a personal project. I interned at an architecture firm and that made me realize I enjoyed design and the work that goes with it.” Then Gail recommended RISD. “I had never seen the place before I showed up, but Gail said it was the place to go. She was right. It was the perfect place for me.”

When Rich started teaching at Avon, George Trautman H’98, P’75, ’81, ’82, GP’03 introduced him to Dave LaBau at Stecker LaBau Architects, the architectural firm that was designing the Aron Academic Center and is now known as The S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM). Dave’s son Brian ’77 is also an Old Farms alum.  Rich worked for SLAM part-time for that first year and then switched to full-time with SLAM and part-time with AOF for the next nine years. With SLAM he was mentored by Dave LaBau to focus his career on independent schools and he grew in the company as it expanded from just 15 employees in one office to more than 300 in nine offices across the country. “I was certainly in the right place at the right time. It was a great career.” He worked with SLAM for 43 years, serving as chairman and then chairman emeritus for his final years before retiring in 2023. 

Even in those years that he wasn’t a teacher or student, Rich always maintained a strong connection to Avon Old Farms. A large part of his job with SLAM was working with independent schools on their campus projects or master plans, now having worked with over 50 schools across the country. “I’m still doing some informal work with independent schools. I have a love and passion for that.” This included multiple projects at Avon Old Farms. “Avon was a client, but I would always volunteer my time for the school because Avon has always been a very important part of my life.”

Because of this passion for the school, Rich has continued to offer his expertise and advice for ongoing and future projects at Avon. This includes new faculty housing, the dormitory upgrades, and the new entrance to the school caused by the Old Farms Road realignment project. “With Avon, I’m always available. I’ve always had a sweet spot for the school, so I do what I can to help projects move forward.” He has also organized and led architectural walking tours around Avon’s campus during reunions or other school events. “Those are really fun.” 

One potential project Rich says he is particularly excited for is a new innovation center. That is a significant potential project for the school. It’d be a game-changer. I think it meets a need for the growing engineering and robotics programs, but also creates a space for students to gather and be more collaborative, which is a direction education is heading. I’ve been encouraging more collaborative spaces around campus.”

As an alum from the Trautman era and a professional architect, Rich has a unique understanding of how to carry out new projects at Avon. “I’m all about preserving Mrs. Riddle’s masterpiece composition of traditional buildings and spaces on campus. As an architect, she was extremely talented and has begun to receive the credit she deserves as both a notable architect and her role as one of the first registered woman architects in the country. I really treasure Avon’s original sense of place that has impacted me and so many Avonians, but the new developments are exciting. I think if she were around today, Mrs. Riddle would be interested in the new advancements in education and be supportive of allowing the campus to continue to meet the needs of new generations of Avonians. The school has continued to evolve, but I think it’s in such a great place now. I’m excited to see what’s next.”

Rich shared an idea he had while helping plan the ongoing dorm upgrades that would allow for a preservation of history while building for the future. He says it would be a personal goal to restore one of the original dorm rooms to its 1927 appearance as a type of archival exhibit. “It’s a way to keep ties to our origins while addressing the need to bring the dorms up to modern standards.”

While he certainly intends to continue advising on projects at Avon, he has plenty in his personal life to keep him busy. He and his wife, Nancy, recently moved to Virginia and have been traveling as much as they can. They toured Egypt and Jordan in the fall, and their next trip is a highly anticipated tour of Spain and Portugal. As if that wouldn’t keep them busy enough, they are set to welcome their first grandchild in June. 

Even with welcoming new family members and a full plate of summer plans, Rich is eager to return to the Farm this fall for his 50-year reunion. “It’s always good to get together. The spouses like it too. Everyone really enjoys seeing each other and catching up, so I’m looking forward to it.”