Maconda Brown O’Connor, philanthropist, social worker, and children’s and community advocate, was born Alice Maconda Brown, the daughter of Alice Nelson (Pratt) Brown and George Rufus Brown, in Houston, Texas, on May 4, 1930. She had two sisters—Nancy, born in 1927, and Isabel, born in 1931. At the time of her birth, her father was a successful paving contractor, whose construction company Brown & Root, Inc., eventually became the fourth largest in the world. Although Maconda and her two sisters grew up surrounded by wealth, she was a private person who rarely gave interviews, preferred to make anonymous donations, and chose to relate to others in a personal manner. She attended Kinkaid High School in Houston and was active in the drama club and played on the girls’ basketball team. As a father, George Brown went to great lengths to protect his daughters, even fibbing about O'Connor's test scores to persuade her to attend a two-year school, Pine Manor College, on the East Coast instead of a four-year-program. He wanted to keep his daughters close, Maconda recalled in an interview with the Houston Chronicle in 1992.
Even so, on April 28, 1950, college sweethearts Maconda Brown and Ralph Sturges O'Connor eloped. Subsequently Ralph went to work as a roustabout on an oil rig for his father-in-law in Beaumont while the couple started a family. The O’Connors moved to Billings, Montana; Midland, Texas; and eventually Houston. They had four children during this time—George Rufus O’Connor, Thomas “Toby” Ireland O’Connor, Nancy Isabel O’Connor, and John Herman O'Connor.
Maconda O’Connor, at the age of fifty-one and with all her children no longer at home, returned to school. Adding to the associates degree she had received from Pine Manor College in 1950, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in Houston followed by a master’s degree in social work from Smith College in Massachusetts in 1985. Ralph and Maconda divorced in 1993.
In 1998 Maconda completed her doctorate in social work from Smith College and subsequently received honorary doctorates from Pine Manor College and the University of Houston. O’Connor based her dissertation, entitled “Developmental Status of Affect Management in Adjudicated Adolescent Males,” on investigative research done at the Juvenile Probation Department Facility—Burnett-Bayland Home (BBH) in Harris County, Texas. Her work specifically focused on how learning emotional management strategies in a supportive environment could aid troubled teens in their development. She went beyond studying the facility; she was dedicated to its success and that of the boys sentenced to time at the detention center. Along with the BBH superintendent, Linda Crocker, the two women “designed and Maconda funded more than 50 programs in that facility, including drug and alcohol counseling, therapy, peer mediation, and photography and art shops. If a kid needed money for clothes or books or tutoring, he got it. Youth with special promise received tuition and expenses for college.”
"She truly believed everyone had value," said Gretchen Walter, who worked with Maconda O’Connor at the county detention center and eventually became her personal assistant. "No person was ever hopeless. She believed if you give people the right tools and right opportunities for education, they would do well." Her father, George Brown, who grew up in poverty in rural Texas, had emphasized to her the power, importance, and expectation of philanthropy. This core belief led George and Alice Brown, along with his brother and sister-in-law Herman and Margarett Brown, to establish the Brown Foundation in 1951—a nonprofit charitable foundation and one of the state’s leading benefactors. Both couples passed their dedication to philanthropic work to their children and grandchildren who served as members of the board of directors for the family’s foundation. Maconda, for example, served as both president and chairman of the Brown Foundation at different points during her adult life.
She also used her time, knowledge, connections, and financial resources in collaborative efforts to aid children and community enrichment programs. She was active in many children's organizations, community building initiatives, and policy advocacy groups, including Harris County Protective Services, El Hogar de Ninos, the Child Abuse Prevention Network, the Mental Health Association of Houston and Harris County, and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department. She was a co-founder of both the Houston A+ Challenge and the Greater Houston Collaborative for Children and served on the boards of the Discovery Green Conservancy, Brookings Institution, American Leadership Forum, Texas Children's Hospital, Baylor College of Medicine, Rice Center for Education, University of Houston-Downtown, and Houston Area Women's Center. Additionally, she was named “Humanitarian of the Year” in 1999 by the Group Psychotherapy Foundation and became a member of the Philosophical Society of Texas in 2008. Moreover, she supported Emily's List, a national political action committee working to elect women who support keeping abortion legal, and was an ardent Democrat who gave generously to a number of campaigns including that of Governor Ann Richards.
As a licensed advanced clinical practitioner, O'Connor operated a small private therapy practice through which she provided services to disadvantaged children and families. Gretchen Walter, Maconda’s personal assistant, marveled at how she “could connect with anybody.”
Maconda Brown O’Connor died from complications from a stomach infection on May 19, 2012, in Houston. A memorial service was held for her on May 23, 2012, at St. John the Divine Episcopal Church in Houston, and she was buried in Glenwood Cemetery. At the time of her death, she was survived by her sister, Nancy Brown Negley-Wellin; two cousins, Louisa S. Sarofim and Mike Stude; four children, George Rufus O'Connor, Thomas “Toby” Ireland O'Connor, Nancy Isabel O'Connor Abendshein, and John Herman O'Connor; nine grandchildren; and one great granddaughter. She was preceded in death by her parents, Alice and George Brown, and her sister Isabel Brown Wilson. Her obituary in the Houston Chronicle stated, “Her commitment to those in need has made her legendary in the Houston community....It is impossible to calculate those whose lives have been positively impacted by the programs she started, funded and supported. Her…quiet impact will be felt for generations.”
During her life and posthumously, a number of initiatives were named in her honor. In 2003 the Greater Houston Collaborative for Children established the annual Maconda Brown O'Connor Spirit of Collaboration Award to recognize organizations committed to developing and sustaining programs that benefit children in Houston. Further, the Brown Foundation established in her memory the Smith College School for Social Work Maconda Brown O’Connor Professorship and the Maconda Brown O’Connor Endowed Dean’s Chair in the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, and the Maconda Brown O’Connor, Ph.D. Adult Cystic Fibrosis Center at Baylor College of Medicine.
On April 22, 2013, during the Eighty-third Texas Legislature, Texas House representatives Jessica Farrar and Sarah Davis filed the bipartisan House Resolution 1668, which was adopted on May 1, 2013, in memory of Maconda Brown O'Connor.