“He’s unbelievable, that pie man,” said Rockville Centre resident Bernie O’Brien minutes before receiving a visit — and a pie — from his friend Joe O’Connor on Sept. 11, the anniversary of the day he lost his son and son-in-law 17 years ago.
“They call me the pie man,” O’Connor said. The weekend after the terrorist attacks in 2001, he began baking and delivering apple pies to Rockville Centre residents who had lost loved ones. Initially, the former Vietnam War Navy veteran was volunteering at the Recreation Center, loading trucks with supplies for the cause. But he wanted to do more, and was accustomed to baking for his family.
“In the beginning, I was doing it for myself to get out of my rut. I wasn’t coping well,” O’Connor recalled. “Now, it’s changed. I like the people, and I do it for them.”
O’Connor lives in Freeport with his wife, Ellen, who was born and raised in Rockville Centre. The two spend much of their time in the village. Of the nearly 50 Rockville Centre residents who died in the attacks, O’Connor still delivers pies to about 25 of their families.
Over the 17 years of keeping the tradition, he’s delivered roughly 450 apple and peach pies, but O’Brien always gets the first one.
O’Brien and his wife, Marilyn, lost their son Timothy, 40, who was a broker for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower, which was struck by a commercial jet at 8:46 a.m. Their son worked with their daughter’s husband, Steven Tighe, 41.
“I got a phone call from my daughter Kathy around 9 o’clock, and I could tell by her voice that there was something drastically wrong,” O’Brien recounted, adding that he immediately drove to her house a few blocks away. “She was frozen in front of the TV. . . . One look at the TV and we knew the good Lord called them home.”
That weekend, O’Connor dropped by the O’Briens’ house on Milford Place. “When Joe pressed the doorbell that day, we thought, ‘Boy, oh boy, that is so thoughtful,’ and now he’s been doing it for 17 years,” Bernie said, calling O’Connor a “super human being” and a friend.
“He’s such a good man, and he always remembers,” Marilyn added. “Every 9/11 he comes to the door with a nice, delicious apple pie.”
At the village’s annual Sept. 11 remembrance ceremony last Sunday, Timothy’s brother, Pat O’Brien, spoke about his brother and brother-in-law and remembered their lives. Tim, he said, helped St. Agnes School win a state championship and went on to attend Hartwick College on a full basketball scholarship. Tighe, who grew up on Hillside Avenue, around the corner from his family, Pat said, played soccer at South Side High School. He married Pat’s sister in 1986 and went on to coach soccer in the village. A field was named in his honor after his death.
“Through faith, family and friends, we continue to move forward and carry on our lives as our loved ones would want us to do,” Pat said. “May the Lord keep us all in the palm of his hand until we meet them again.”
O’Connor said he was careful not to intrude during that first year. “I took 9/11 hard, but I cannot imagine losing a loved one and living that nightmare,” he noted. “I just wanted to give back”
The first pie he delivered, he recalled, was to a woman whose husband was still missing. “. . . The lady said to me, ‘My husband is very strong, he’ll survive this,’ and that broke my heart . . . because no matter how strong he was, I thought, how could anyone survive this?”
After the first year of pie deliveries, Marilyn threw out the address list of the victims’ families, which were published in the Herald, because she thought it was a one-time thing. But her husband decided to make it an annual tradition, and tracked them down again.
The families got to know him better over the years. “I’ve seen all the kids grow up,” O’Connor said. “. . . They’re friends now, and there’s more of a connection.”
The O’Briens admire what he is doing. “I wish this world had more Joe O’Connors,” Bernie said. “It would be better off.”
(Ben Strack contributed to this story.)