Published: March 13, 2021

IN MEMORIAM: Maj. Peter O'Connell, Rhode Island's first Lottery director

The first executive director of the Rhode Island Lottery, Peter J. O'Connell, died at his home in North Scituate on Wednesday, just a few weeks shy of his 100th birthday, his family said.

O'Connell became director of The Lot after a 25-year career with the Rhode Island State Police, where he retired as a major and also served as acting director. He was inducted into the Rhode Island Criminal Justice Hall of Fame in 2014.

Tapped to head the lottery by then-Gov. Philip Noel in 1974, O'Connell reluctantly accepted and held the post until retiring in 1993. The state agency's headquarters in Cranston is named for him.

"They made the Lottery through him," said former Rhode Island State Police Supt. Steven O'Donnell. "The Lottery we see today is basically his doing."

Mark A. Furcolo, administrator of The Lottery, issued the following statement;

“Governor Phil Noel recruited then-Maj. Peter J. O' Connell away from the Rhode Island State Police in 1974 to start the Rhode Island Lottery from scratch. O’Connell spent the next 20 years building the foundation and structure of one of the country’s most-successful state lotteries.

"His stellar reputation and hard work in the lottery industry later led the Public Gaming Research Institute to name its lifetime achievement award after him," he said. 

"The Lottery staff offers its sincere condolences to the O’Connell family on his passing,” Furcolo said.

O'Connell had left the state police by the time O'Donnell joined the force in 1987, but the two formed a friendship. O'Donnell and other troopers would meet O'Connell for lunch or visit his home.

"He'd tell stories. We were fascinated," O'Donnell said. "He was the grandfather everybody wanted to have." 

The son of immigrants from Ireland, O'Connell grew up in Providence's Mount Pleasant neighborhood and graduated from La Salle Academy. He served with the Marine Corps during World War II.

In November, O'Connell's niece Mary Dunlavey moved in with O'Connell and his wife, Frances, to care for them through their illnesses. Frances died in January. The couple had been married for more than 50 years.

The couple did not have children, but O'Connell was a loving force in the lives of his nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews and great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews, according to Dunlavey.

They, too, enjoyed hearing stories about their uncle's service with the state police. Dunlavey loved hearing how her uncle and other outnumbered troopers quelled a prison riot with tact rather than force.

O'Connell marched in President John F. Kennedy's inaugural parade. He also guarded President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he visited Newport. O'Connell enjoyed telling the story of the time Eisenhower cooked him a steak.

O'Connell saw some humor in his taking over the Rhode Island Lottery after spending 25 years chasing criminals and trying to stop illegal gambling. He'd say, "The next thing I'm doing is starting legal gambling to further my aim of ending illegal gambling," Dunlavey recalled.

O'Connell's family says he was "a pioneer in the lottery field and the use of instant ticket and online systems. After years of promoting the concept of a multi-state lottery, Major O’Connell served a two-year term as the first president of the Multi-State Lottery Association."

A wake will be from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Friday at Winfield and Sons Funeral Home in Scituate. A funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Saturday at Blessed Sacrament Church in Providence. Burial will be at St. Ann Cemetery in Cranston.


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