Remembering Richie O’Connor

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 “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” It’s a lyric from a song from one of his favorite Broadway musicals, “Wicked,” and it is one that resonates with the hundreds of people who were lucky enough to know Richie O’Connor.

However, as hundreds lined up around the block of Denis O’Connor Funeral Home to pay their respects on Sunday, April 25 and pews were packed at St. Rose of Lima Church as an additional 11,000 people tuned in to the live stream for his funeral on Monday, April 26, another one of Richie’s favorite songs from “Wicked” also resonates— “Popular.”

On Friday, April 23, Richie O’Connor, known to many as the beloved hair stylist from Rocco’s, died after an unexpected and quick battle with an aggressive form of brain cancer. Richie was just a few weeks away from turning 53. But despite being taken too soon, Richie O’Connor lived a life that only some could dream of—one of friendship, laughter and so much love. As another song from “Wicked” says,  Richie was always “dancing through life.”

A lifelong Rockaway resident, Richie O’Connor arrived in the world on May 12, 1968. Born to Lillian and Richard O’Connor, Richie was the youngest after four sisters, Patricia Gray, Lillian Reynolds, Jeanne Byrne and Barbara Knott. Richie came into the world shortly before his eldest sister, Pat, was supposed to get married at age 21. The age difference made for a unique family dynamic throughout his life. “After he was born, my parents came home from their honeymoon. My dad was a rookie cop in the 100th Precinct and he brought Richie dressed in his little sailor outfit and said to the sergeant, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my brother-in-law,” Christine Ferazani, Patricia’s daughter, said. Ferazani came along just 20 months after Richie. Though he was technically Uncle Richie, she was one of the few who wasn’t allowed to call him that. After all, being so close in age, they were more like brother and sister. But to many others, Richie O’Connor did become known as “Uncle Richie,” even if there wasn’t a family connection. As she gave the eulogy during Monday’s funeral service, Ferazani summed it up well, “Everyone should have an Uncle Richie.”

From his partner of 22 years, John Hoffman, and his cat, Lupita, to his 11 nieces and nephews, 12 great nieces and great nephews, as well as several godchildren, Richie was surrounded by love. But that love extended beyond family.

According to Ferazani, Richie had a habit of “collecting people.” From his elementary school days at St. Rose of Lima to his high school days at Beach Channel, through his time spent traveling and his outings across the city, O’Connor made friends everywhere he went. “I can’t tell you how many friends he had,” Richie’s sister, Pat Gray said. “He had 15 different crews.” Many included lifelong or longtime friends—a testament to the bond that Richie formed with those he met.

In addition to living a life surrounded by love, Richie spent his life doing what he loved—hairdressing.  “When I was a young girl, I had very long hair and he used to love to brush my hair and style it,” Pat Gray said. That hobby blossomed into a full-time career. Despite wanting to go to beautician school, Gray says her mother encouraged Richie to go to college. He did, graduating with a business degree, but he still wanted to be in the business of doing hair. In his 20s, O’Connor got his license and soon started working at Rocco’s Hair Salon, where he transformed the looks of thousands of locals from those looking for a trim, to those wanting to look their best for their most memorable occasions, like weddings, communions, proms and beyond. And his knack for looking good went beyond good hair. From dresses to bags, earrings to shoes, Richie was the go-to guy for fashion advice. “He knew just how to dress everybody. If you had a particular body flaw, he knew how to get the right cut to hide what it was,” Ferazani said. His fashion-sense radiated on the outside as Richie, who never wore an outfit twice, was known to coordinate the perfect shoes, bow tie and fedora or jaunty cap for a night on the town.

During one of those nights out at a Broadway show, Richie picked up on the fashion sense of a fellow audience member sitting next to him—Jimmy Fallon. He struck up a conversation with The Tonight Show host, and by the end of the night, the two were singing karaoke at a nearby bar and Jimmy Fallon took down his address so he could send him one of his suits. It was just one of many celebrity encounters. As a big Bravo TV fan, Richie had a habit of having run-ins with late night show host Andy Cohen. “He used to stalk Andy Cohen in the summer at the Jersey shore. He’d always find him and take pictures with him,” Ferazani said. And Cohen remembered Richie. Shortly after his cancer diagnosis, Cohen tweeted, “Uncle Richie I am sending you all my hugs and love!!!”

While it was a testament to who he was that Richie left impressions on celebrities, it is those who knew him best who will truly remember Richie O’Connor for the unique person he was.

“Richie was truly one of a kind, if only the world had more people like him,” Laura Boyle Rochelle, one of his best friends from high school, said. “He was all about love, family, friends and everyone having fun. We were blessed to have him in our lives and will cherish the memories he gave us.”

Her daughter and Richie’s goddaughter, Megan Rochelle said, “If you knew Richie, you loved him. I am so lucky to have had him play so many roles in my life: godfather, brother, friend. Although Richie was my go-to for advice on fashion and style, the advice I will carry forever is to ‘live life like Richie’—he lived life to the fullest and is a true inspiration to us all.”

Even with his loss, Richie taught that lesson. His cousin, Kelli Ann Leary, shared a recent conservation she had with Richie, in which he mentioned he wanted to buy a pair of $295 shorts. “I told him he was crazy to spend that much money on a pair of shorts,” she said. He agreed to wait until they were on sale. “He never got to buy the shorts. If I learned anything his last week, it’s to buy the shorts” she said. #BuyTheShorts was soon used by other friends and family in his memory, like longtime friend, Nancy Re-Ferguson who said, “Let's always live by his lessons: Beauty is pain, #BuyTheShorts, and most importantly, be beautiful inside and out!"

Richie O’Connor’s spirit will live on. His friends and family hope to auction off pieces from his flashy wardrobe at some point in the future to raise funds to send kids from the neighborhood to experience a Broadway show. The Graybeards have also started a scholarship fund in his memory to send kids to Richie’s alma mater, St. Rose of Lima. Anyone who would like to make a donation, can send a check to Graybeards Ltd., 129-04 Newport Avenue, Rockaway, NY 11694, Att: The Richie O’Connor Scholarship.

 By Katie McFadden

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