PEPPERELL — When the town’s computers burp, software needs updating or a printer won’t work, municipal workers put in a call to Den Connors.
Last year, when a municipal wireless network tying together all departments and first responders was put in place, it was Connors who masterminded the effort, to save taxpayer money.
When an antenna needed to be affixed to an 80-foot tower, it was Connors’ body that was strapped to the topmost foot.
He didn’t have to do it. It isn’t part of his system administrator’s job description, but making things work for his adopted town is just something Connors takes as normal and he wouldn’t change places with anyone.
For these reasons, as well as just being who he is, Den Connors is a unanimous choice for the 2008 Nashoba Publishing Extraordinary Service Award for Pepperell.
Multi-tasking in small-town Pepperell is a joy for Connors because he has a secret weapon — he and his family no longer need to suffer the draining effects of a corporate vice president’s world.
“I get to do all this neat stuff and they actually pay me for it. How great is that?” he asked. “Working in a small town is so much better than the corporate world. I can get out of the office and maybe climb a ladder truck.”
Community involvement and a sense of “giving back,” coupled with family history, is why he also became a firefighter/EMT. His dad had been a firefighter in his native Troy, N.Y., and Connors had been an emergency medical technician there.
Connors is a trained astrophysicist with a master’s degree from New York State University. He spent two years as an astronomer at Kitt Peak Observatory, in Tucson, before moving back to the Northeast. For a while, he worked at Haystack Observatory, in Westford.
“Fool that I was, I came back to New England,” he once joked.
He also owns his own company, Knu Wave Corporation.
Connors has worked as a systems engineer for Wang Laboratories and vice president of engineering at System Soft in Natick, Priority Cell in Wilmington, and, most recently, vice president of wireless engineering for Empirix, before he “graduated” to his work in Pepperell.
“You go through them like water,” he said of his corporate jobs. “And it’s so good when you leave.”
Last July 4, it was Connors who played a major role in organizing the Independence Day parade and it was his signal from the front of Town Hall that started everything in motion.
He was painfully thin, however, and he looked drawn.
Shortly afterward, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — a form of cancer.
During the past year, Town Hall workers grew cautious when they spoke of him. They wouldn’t mention his disease, instead saying softly that Den was “doing OK” or that he’s “at home” on the days chemotherapy robbed him of his energy and he could only work one or two hours.
Connors would speak of his trials almost cheerfully, however, relating the medical mechanisms used to keep him alive.
Last week he arrived at work with an intravenous tube bandaged to his arm, hoping to do a little work in between doctors appointments.
“I have to go back because I’m dehydrated and anemic,” he said. “If I’m dehydrated, they’ll put in fluids. If I’m anemic, they’ll do a transfusion.”
Connors said the biggest problem is exhaustion, although with modern technology there’s no pain. And with great relief he announced he had only one chemo treatment left to endure.
“I can only get in a half hour after chemo,” Connors said. “Terry (his supervisor town accountant Theresa Walsh) only lets me work a half day. The best is during chemo, though. I can use the wireless network from the hospital to do my backups and things, and I can get in a 40-hour week.”
Last year, the Board of Fire Engineers called a press conference, at Connors request, in the Jersey Street fire station at which he thanked everyone who has been helping him, his wife, Rosemary, and by extension his children, Mandy and Christopher.
Connors arrived on crutches, unable to put weight on his leg for the first few hours after receiving his Newpogen shot — an injected medication that helps build white blood cells, to counter the losses from chemo. Cold air still hurts his chemo-weakened teeth, causing him to be cautious when smiling.
“I was losing weight and no one knew why. Then they found what’s wrong,” Connors said. He was told the “good news” is that Hodgkin’s is curable, if any good news can be associated with cancer.
“The doctor told me that the best chance for full recovery would require chemotherapy, a good attitude and a strong support network. My primary supporter has been my wife, who has been there for me absolutely and I want to thank her for being the best firefighter’s wife a man could have,” Connors said before listing the names of his family of firefighters.
Connors said the help “convinced me that no firefighter or EMT in this town need ever fear that he or she will face serious hardship alone. This department has a huge safety net, grasped by all when any one of us begins to fall.”
That was in February. His battle continues today although he insists the prognosis is good.
“Den is very dedicated and he’s got an unbelievable attitude toward life,” Walsh said.
Town administrator Robert Hanson adopted a piece of Connors’ own humor when speaking of him. “For a guy who started out as an astrophysicist, he turned out pretty well.”
As he sat down to have his picture taken, Connors said, “My chief goal is to get back to work on the Fire Department.”
Deputy Fire Chief Peter Shattuck was close by. Asked if he could see the reason so many folks wanted Connors to be honored, Shattuck replied, “I do know. We appreciate all he does for us, above and beyond. A great guy.”
Connors didn’t want the Extraordinary Service Award.
“I plan to be (at the awards ceremony) but I may have to sit quietly in the back. I can’t have anyone who is sick sit near me,” Connors said, “but I wonder why I’m getting this. You’d think of giving it to people who deserve this more than I.”