by Tim Kelly
On this Father’s Day, Bill O’Connor received the same precious gift from daughter Amanda that he has received every day since September 11, 2001. The gift of life.
“People are so kind when they talk about what I’ve done for Amanda,” said O’Connor, 54, a resident of the Gardens section of Ocean City. “The truth is she gave me more than I can ever give her. Amanda gave me purpose and reason to go on.”
Amanda was just two years old when her mom, Bill’s wife Diana J. Vega O’Connor, was among the nearly 3,000 people murdered in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the crash of a passenger airliner in a Pennsylvania field.
Since then the challenges have been numerous for father and daughter. But perseverance, a family bond, and Ocean City New Jersey turned a tragic story into one of healing and peace.
Diana, the 15th of 16 children from a Brooklyn family and only the second in her family to graduate from college, was a Managing Director at Sandler O’Neill and Partners, an investment banking firm located on the 104th floor of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
She always had a head for organization and for finance, Bill said, but in the tough world of Wall Street, Diana was the one employee who faced the pressure and the challenges of each day while singing at her desk. Known for her upbeat personality, generosity and strong devotion to family, Diana was just 37 years old on September 11.
At the time Bill was an educator in the New York City public school system, the Dean of Students at Leonardo daVinci Intermediate School and the holder of two masters degrees. He loved his job and his students, but when Amanda had separation anxiety during pre-school, Bill decided to shelve his career and become a fulltime Dad.
“Her pre-school teacher put a chair out in the hallway and I sat there for a week,” Bill recalls. “Amanda would run out of the classroom every 20 minutes to make sure I was there. I’d hug her and usher her back in. That is when I decided she wasn’t going to be raised by a nanny or a baby sitter or even a different relative. I was going to do the best I could, and that meant it was going to be a fulltime job.”
16 years later, Amanda is a proud graduate of Ocean City High School and an aspiring actress. Before moving to Ocean City as a freshman, she had been enrolled in four different New York area schools and could not find her niche.
“I couldn’t fit in anywhere” Amanda said. “Everywhere we looked there were memorials to 9-11 and people identified my Dad and I as victims. People were very nice, but we did not want that to be our identity.”
Bill and Amanda had first vacationed in Ocean City when Amanda was five years old. “Ocean City was the one place where we could find peace,” she said. “There weren’t memorials everywhere and nobody knew we had an association with 9-11 unless we said something about it.”
Father and daughter returned frequently to Ocean City, and the stays kept getting longer and longer.
“We stayed one time for six weeks, and I finally said to my Dad ‘Why don’t we start over in Ocean City?’ My Dad gave up his home, his friends, his career, for me, and here we are.”
“It was definitely a great decision,” Bill said. “There are so many things for Amanda to do here that she could not take advantage of in New York. The beach, the boardwalk, riding her bike around town…Ocean City provided the perfect atmosphere for her high school years.”
Amanda’s gratitude to her Dad is palpable. “My Dad is the one who always invited my friends over to the house. When we got hungry at 1 a.m. he would get pizza or run to Wawa. He was great with me but also with my friends. He would give them rides, buy them meals, buy their tickets when we went to the movies. He would do whatever it took.”
“I do a lot of waiting,” Bill said with a laugh. “I wait at school, at the mall, at the boardwalk. It’s worth it though. She gives me so much. When I look at Amanda, my wife is alive.”
Not only is there a strong physical resemblance to Diana, Bill said, Amanda has inherited many of her mom’s mannerisms.
“One time I held Amanda in a blanket and her leg kicked outside of it, just the way her mom used to kick her leg out from under the blanket in bed. It was nothing conscious or something she tried to do, but it was such a reminder of my wife. I look at Amanda and see things like that all the time.”
Last week father and daughter completed a major segment of their journey when Amanda graduated from OCHS. She fastened her mother’s photo and prayer card to her graduation cap.
“I felt that my Mom was with me, and that she was really proud of my Dad,” Amanda said.
Amanda has a full scholarship offer from Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, where Bill and Diana met and fell in love. But first she will pursue her dream of becoming an actress with studies at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
Amanda spent a semester there last year, attending classes on the weekends during her regular senior year studies. She plans on spending one year at the institution’s New York location and the second year in West Hollywood. She is learning virtually every aspect of acting on the stage and screen. Upon completion she will have an Associates’ degree to go along with her training and experiences, which she may use toward a four-year degree.
Bill plans to continue supporting his daughter’s efforts, including a move to the West Coast when the time comes.
“I owe my Dad everything, “Amanda says. “I definitely would not be the same person without all he has done for me.”
For Bill’s part, there are no regrets.
“There were difficult times, sure, and I think that’s true of all parents and particularly all single parents,” he says.
“Looking back on it all, I don’t think I would change a thing.”