At the curtain closing of a recent winter ballet performance, Patty O’Reilly stepped on the wooden stage to graciously take a few bouquets from her admiring students and wave to an applauding audience.
Patty has done this for nearly a decade as owner and lead teacher at the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance, off Broadway. But for this veteran ballerina and mother of two, it isn’t about the performances or the applause, it’s about teaching, it’s about learning. It’s about doing something in life that she truly loves because, as Patty knows, life can be terribly short.
Patty is first and foremost a fiercely loving mother to her daughters, Erin and Siobhan, 21 and 17. She is also a teacher and mentor to countless girls and boys in the community who have attended ballet and dance classes at her studio. She is a women’s advocate.
But more deeply, she is a survivor, the epitome of strength, a widow before she was 40 who has lived through unimaginable grief.
In April 2004, Patty’s 43-year-old husband, Danny O’Reilly, was killed when he was struck by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle home from work. Danny had volunteered to ride his bike to work, 30 miles from the family’s Sonoma home to Kendall Jackson Winery while one of the family’s two cars was repaired. He wore a bright yellow jacket, flashing safety lights, a helmet and a headlamp, but these offered scant protection from a drunken, 47-year-old William Michael Albertson and his pickup truck.
The O’Reillys had been married for almost 13 years. He was a loving father, a wonderful husband and a good cook, known for his soups. And, his daughters, who were 12 and 7 at the time, had so much life left to share with him, Patty remembers.
Patty was born in the Philippines, the youngest of five. Her mother was Filipino and her father was in the U.S. Air Force, which caused the family to move around during Patty’s early years before eventually settling in Fairfield when she was in second grade.
From an early age, Patty knew she wanted to be a dancer. “The legend has it that I was taken to San Francisco to see ‘The Nutcracker’ and when the show was over, I walked out of the War Memorial building on tiptoes,” she says.
Patty’s first teacher was patient and kind, full of praise, and built up her confidence, but she didn’t teach the young dancer proper techniques. It came as a rude awakening to Patty when she began her training in Vallejo with a ballet instructor who was harsh and aggressive, but nonetheless taught Patty the proper techniques.
Patty went on to use these two different teachers to create her own gentle, yet firm teaching method to build up the skills and confidence of her dancers.
Patty and Danny had both met as dancers while living in Vallejo. He’d started dancing in college after watching ballet on television and falling in love with the sport. The two later moved to Sonoma and began a family while he worked in marketing at a Valley winery and pushed Patty toward her dream of opening her own ballet school in Vallejo.