By Tim Kelly
It has been a whirlwind year for Bill and Amanda O’Connor.
When we last checked in, the dynamic father-daughter duo was celebrating Amanda’s June 2017 graduation from Ocean City High School and preparing for a return to their native New York City.
Today Bill, 55, is back to his career roots as a teacher in the New York Public Schools. A former Dean of Students at a public school, he was hired last summer as a financial literacy teacher at Horace Greeley Intermediate School in Astoria, Queens.
Nineteen-year-old Amanda went back to chase her dream of an acting and singing career. She took a major step last week, signing her first recording contract with Los Angeles-based Parliament Records. The deal includes representation by a manager and agent to find auditions for roles in feature films as well as help guide her music career.
Who says you can’t go home again?
The O’Connors’ triumphant return to New York is the latest chapter in their recovery process from unspeakable tragedy. Bill’s wife and Amanda’s mom Diana J. Vega O’Connor was murdered along with 2,752 others in the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 in lower Manhattan.
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 was 37.
Bill’s profound grief made him “a complete mess” in the first months after the tragedy, he said. But Amanda, who was just two years old at the time, gave him the courage to press on.
“I’ve often said that Amanda is the main reason I’m still around,” Bill said. “No matter how much despair I felt, I knew that I had to be there for my daughter.”
He quit his job to focus on becoming a fulltime father. “I knew that I did not want Amanda to be raised by a nanny or even another relative,” he said. But there were difficulties for both Bill, who was thrust into single fatherhood, and Amanda, who bounced around four schools in five years.
“Everywhere we went in New York, we would see reminders” of that terrible day Bill said. “People were so nice to us, but their kindnesses were reminders too. We didn’t want our identities to be defined as a victim’s family. We had vacationed in Ocean City, and we both loved it. It was Amanda’s idea to move to Ocean City permanently and start over.”
OC was the perfect emotional haven, Bill said. Close enough to New York to visit family and friends, far enough and different enough to provide a perfect atmosphere for healing. Father and daughter made new friends, rode bikes around town, and went to the beach and boardwalk.
For his daughter, a tall and slender freshman in 2013 who’d inherited her mom’s physical beauty, assimilation as the new kid in town happened slowly but surely. With a core group of new friends, Amanda found her comfort zone and made it as a Red Raider.
The kids would hang out at the condo and Bill stayed up all night, driving them to the movies or Wawa, and ultimately back to their far-flung homes on the island or in sending district towns. There were also more than a few unplanned sleepovers.
“My Dad gave up his career to be there for me, but he was also there for my friends,” Amanda remembered. When her friends weren’t around, she would write melodies and poetry and build the creative elements into songs.
When Amanda picked up her OCHS diploma, the time was right for the pair’s return on their own terms. Amanda had been accepted in the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Manhattan and immersed herself in the study of method acting. Her music continued as a priority as well.
Bill spent 15-hour days putting Horace Greeley School’s financial literacy program in place. In September he returned to the classroom after a 15 year hiatus. The feedback he received from students, parents and administration was “awesome,” O’Connor said. But his biggest satisfaction came from watching the young people put the material to practical use.
“We have 14-year-olds saving for retirement already,” he said, with a mixture of pride and laughter. “These kids are shopping for interest rates, shopping for credit cards, transferring debt from high interest cards to low interest cards. They are financial samurais!”
Not to be outdone, one of Amanda’s songs, “Don’t Cry for Me,” caught the attention of her old Ocean City neighbor, Gabriel Maciocia, an artist, producer and songwriter whose resume includes working with 60s musical icons the Four Tops and Tommy James.
“Her voice is soulful and different, and I believe marketable,” said Maciocia, 69. He encouraged Amanda to go into the studio and record an audition CD.
“Gabe believed in my music,” Amanda said. “To be encouraged by such a professional really helped my confidence.”
Amanda also credited Maciocia’s girlfriend Rita Boyle as one of her top cheerleaders. “She always told me that if you work hard and persevere you can accomplish anything.”
For the audition, Amanda recorded her vocals and piano and Maciocia mixed in more instrumentation and tweaked the arrangement. The result was a “radio version” of the song, which Maciocia shipped off to Parliament records.
Approximately one week later, the call came from a Parliament executive, along with the contract offer. After discussing it with Bill, Amanda signed the three-year deal for an undisclosed sum.
“It all happened so fast, it was crazy,” she said, “and now the real work begins.”
Amanda has about nine more songs ready to record for the first album. Her music combines the styles of pop and R&B, and her lyrics are topical.
“I want my songs to reach people at a musical level but also have meaning for them to relate to,” Amanda said. She has addressed topics such as suicide, addiction and relationships in her music. Other songs are more upbeat feel-good tunes.
“As talented a singer she is, she is every bit as great of a lyricist,” said Gabe. “I have been around a long time and she’s as good as I’ve seen. She also handles herself really well with adults. Amanda comes across like a 35-year-old who is actually 19.”
“To think it all began with me experimenting on the piano in my bedroom, writing songs,” she said. “Now I have a chance for a lot of people to hear them.”
Amanda credits her Mom for having the foresight to buy her a grand piano at the age of one.
“(Diana) is a big part of all of this,” Amanda said. She must have seen something in me to get a grand piano for me at that age.”
“I think Mom would be really proud me and my Dad today.”