The late Terry O’Connell’s mother, Geraldine “Gerry” Donlon, didn’t think that her son wanted the typical prayers and psalms of a memorial service. She and his Terry’s closest friends instead celebrated O’Connell by honoring the spectacular after-death plan that he had put forth, perhaps in jest, in life.
On June 2, a fleet of an estimated 100 motorcycles ferried a powder horn of his cremated remains through his stomping grounds of Saugerties. His ashes were to be discharged, after a toast to his memory and a bagpipe serenade, from a Revolutionary War-era cannon.
“He wanted to be shot out of a gun — [he and his friends] always said it around the campfire,” said family friend April Richers, who ultimately arranged for the campfire musing to become an eclectic reality. “[His aunt] died a year ago and Terry and I spent quite a bit of time planning her funeral. He confided [his burial aspirations] to me: he said he could only hope to die in his sleep, be burnt and be shot out of a gun. He did all that.”
Coinciding funeral parties at Seamon-Wilsey Funeral Home were met with the sight of motorcycles and cars that “just kept coming.” Richers commended Jack Wilsey for “never losing his composure” in the wake of the atypical traffic. The procession rode in close formation all the way from Blue Mountain Cemetery to Greene County and back to an after party off Hoff Road, led by O’Connell’s lifelong friends.
O’Connell, who would have been 64 last week on June 5, succumbed to a heart attack on Jan. 7 in his home on George Sickle Road, which his family had owned since the late 1930s. While a more traditional funeral took place that month, mourners waited for June’s clear skies and warm weather to pay their respects in a more exhilarating fashion.
The cannon in question was a Revolutionary War mortar, brought in pieces to a field by fellow war re-enactor and friend Jack Hansbury. O’Connell’s motorcycle of choice was a Harley-Davidson — when he was around age 16, his mother bought him a Honda mini-bike, but “then it was all Harleys.” He was a collector of war memorabilia and factoids and a member of the NRA and the Esopus Gun Club, where he would shoot weaponry after running. He worked for the state Department of Transportation for 35 years before retiring, ran his own landscaping business and was a proud roadie of the locally acclaimed Paul Luke Band, who played a set in his honor at the memorial.
“When they got done playing, they’d ask, ‘Where’s Terry,’” recalled Donlon. “He’d pick up their drum sets no matter how tired he was.”
Although his thick facial hair, strenuous hobbies and renowned snappy one-liners may have given others the impression he was hard-bitten, O’Connell was known in the community for his soft-hearted empathy. Last week, his mother left a wooden black cat at his grave site to represent Shadow, his beloved cat. The fall before his death, O’Connell tamed two injured squirrels to nurse back to health and later set free.
“If someone needed something, especially if they were down and out, he could pick them up,” said Richers.
A throat cancer survivor, O’Connell’s mother recalled that he often sat supportively with other patients while they received trying chemo treatments.
At Donlon’s West Camp home, she and Richers giddily recalled old friends that had been in attendance, the quality of the company and the music, the ambiance of their Hoff Road lake destination and the delightful hors d’oeuvres while they ate a summer corn salad that had been left over from the memorial feast. In their planning, the two hadn’t wanted the event to be solemn; their wistful reminiscing, like the weekend’s festivities, were celebratory rather than somber.
“He put every gray hair on my head,” Donlon said at the end of the interview. “I don’t want it to sound like he was a saint or anything.”