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.
Patty remembers too clearly hearing that Danny had died. Her voice is soft as she looks down at her hands and tells of having the nagging feeling deep in her gut that something was wrong when her husband didn’t come home.
When the sheriff’s deputy arrived, followed by a priest, Patty immediately went into shock. They told her a man, who had been driving home from a bar with a blood-alcohol level almost three times the legal limit, was under arrest for killing her husband.
Albertson pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence. With a previous felony conviction on his record, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
At first, Patty could barely muster enough energy to walk, let alone cook, clean and take care of her daughters. “I would just cry,” she says.
But then something changed. “I remember one day I said something to the girls when they weren’t getting in the shower like I had asked them. I said ‘I don’t need this.’ Then I thought what was I saying? They don’t need this either.” Patty decided she had to find a source of positivity to carry on for her daughters and to not be a bitter mother.
Siobhan says now that seeing her mom piece herself back together shows her how much strength she has. “At the time, I was too young to understand, but from all of this I learned that my mom is human and that she is strong and will do what it takes to protect us.” For her dedication and love, Siobhan says, “I don’t think I’ve ever said thank you for what she did for us. Thank you.”
Given strength and hope by her Catholic faith, Patty focused her energy on her two daughters and she decided to continue the plan she and Danny had made. She would own her own ballet studio. In a quick turn of events, she left her studio in Vallejo and bought the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance from the retiring former owner.
In February 2005, Patty was officially owner and director of the studio. Her philosophy, which still stands today, was to teach her dancers the “rules” of ballet in a respectful, supportive environment. “I try to instill in the students that learning ballet is a slow process, it’s the weeds that grow fast.”
That same year, Siobhan made a card for the man who killed her dad, with a picture of her face and tears streaming. She wrote, “My name is Siobhan. I am 8 years old. I’m not mad at you.” She also told her mother that she wanted to meet him.
Patty was taken aback, but took Siobhan’s request seriously. Because Siobhan was too young to meet Albertson, Patty took it upon herself to meet the man who so significantly altered her family’s life.
He was a tormented man, who suffered from alcoholism as a way to cover the pain he felt after years of abuse in his childhood.
Patty started looking into her rights as a victim and sought out a mediator to help facilitate the visit.
Soon Patty was learning about restorative justice and began doing victim’s advocacy work through a program at San Quentin State Prison. The program brought surrogate victims to meet with inmates studying the impact of their crimes.
Patty told her story to a dozen inmates and wept as she told them how one man ruined her life, and the lives of her daughters and her husband.
After beginning her work in restorative justice, Patty was finally ready to meet Albertson. When she did meet him, she had already chosen to forgive him. “There was this hypocrisy of not forgiving Mike (Albertson) and being a devout Catholic,” she said.
“One thread that runs throughout my life is my faith,” Patty said, adding, “I also have this curiosity and I am always looking at things from a place of heart and spirit.”
Patty likes the concept of restorative justice because she believes “the toughest thing on crime is having to face the people you’ve hurt the most.”
Today, Patty is at peace. “If he could have lived, he would have lived,” she says of Danny. “I still miss him every day. But I choose not to be a victim,” she says. She continues her work in restorative justice, giving presentations to let victims and members of the public know that programs like that at San Quentin exist and are helpful to those with such grief.
She also continues to devote her energy to the dancers who come through her studio, serving more as a mentor and role model than an instructor.
Siobhan describes her mother as selfless, hardworking and mother to many. “She has this streak of honor; she cares about people, especially her students,” Siobhan says. “Because of that care for her students, she makes sure that what she does is the best she can do.”
Patty is excited to see her daughters grow and to experience the beginnings of their careers with them. Siobhan will graduate high school next year and Erin is dancing in a ballet program in Switzerland.
“What I’ve learned,” Patty says smiling, “is that dance and life can be joyful. We can all succeed.”