Judy O’Connor had no idea a surprise awaited her when she pushed her son, who uses a wheelchair, onto a stage at the commencement at Chapman University on Saturday.
As she stepped back to let her son, Marty, have his moment — he was receiving his M.B.A. — a dean kept her on stage. It was then announced that she had been awarded an honorary M.B.A. degree. An emotional Ms. O’Connor blew a kiss, and the crowd was on its feet.
“I was totally blown away,” Ms. O’Connor, a retired elementary schoolteacher, said on Wednesday. “I had no idea what was happening.”
“Then I heard my name on the loud speaker,” she said. “It was a total surprise.”
Ms. O’Connor, who has a business degree from Notre Dame, has been by her son’s side, literally, throughout every one of his classes at Chapman, a Los Angeles-area private school. She took all of his notes and typed for him when necessary, Ms. O’Connor said. But their collaboration extended to their home as well.
“We spent a lot of late-night hours together,” she said. While Mr. O’Connor has assistive technology, Ms. O’Connor created his study guides and organized his notes.
Mr. O’Connor, a quadriplegic, was injured in 2012, when he fell down a flight of stairs while working at the packaging industry firm TricorBraun in Southern California. Before that, he was an athlete, snowboarding and playing volleyball at his alma mater, the University of Colorado, Boulder.
As for the surprise, “he got the ball rolling about three months ago,” Ms. O’Connor said, while he was meeting with the university president Daniele Struppa.
“How he kept it a secret from me, I do not know. Because I help him with his cellphone. It was really a covert operation,” she said.
And he was intent on keeping it under wraps.
When Sheri Ledbetter, a university spokeswoman, asked to share his story more widely before commencement, he agreed, but not without a caveat: “Marty’s a really chill, mellow guy, but he said, with a strong tone, ‘Do not ruin the surprise for my mom,’” Ms. Ledbetter said on Wednesday.
In a statement, Mr. Struppa said, “there was no hesitation” when Mr. O’Connor asked his mother to be considered for an honorary degree. “The provost, the dean and the faculty senate immediately approved my request. The dedication from both Marty and his mother in his pursuit for a master’s in business administration is nothing short of admirable,” he said.
Mr. O’Connor’s message of perseverance has resonated on Chapman’s campus and beyond, Ms. Ledbetter said. When he realized that he wasn’t going to fully recover physically, “he decided he needed an intellectual challenge, and that’s why he came back for his M.B.A.,” she said.
“He’s been saying over and over, ‘Your circumstances are not your sentence.’”