Was it a chance encounter or a miracle moment?
On a recent Thursday night, when my husband, daughter and I all enjoyed a glass of wine outside Tuscan Market & Wine Shop, a woman walked by, who stopped when she recognized us.
Her name was Kelly O’Connor and we had not seen her in 12 years, but the context in which we knew her came right back. We had students at Saint Viator High School, who swam together and played water polo. The bonds sewn on the bleachers at the pool remained strong after all these years.
We talked for an hour or more, catching up, reminiscing and somewhat surprisingly sharing life stories. It was a chance encounter, but somehow the depth of our conversation went deeper than that. When Kelly got up to leave, she suggested we take a photo. I was surprised at the time, since we hadn’t seen each other in so long, but she genuinely enjoyed our time together and she encouraged us to get together again soon for dinner.
It turns out, we never would get that chance. Kelly passed away suddenly on July 26, or less than one week later. The night of our visit, Kelly posted our photo on her Facebook page, along with one from her dinner earlier that night with another friend, Jean Simpson.
“Always nice to meet up with great friends,” Kelly wrote.
In the days since Kelly’s untimely death, heartfelt tributes have coming pouring in, many from her coaching colleagues in the basketball world. Kelly had grown up in Schaumburg and was a three-sport athlete at Schaumburg High School. She especially excelled at playing basketball, where she set a school record in 1991, scoring 22 points in one quarter.
She would go on to play Division I basketball at West Point and later coach boys’ and girls’ basketball at Schaumburg and later Conant high schools, where she also taught business.
“The 50-year-old O’Connor, a three-sport athlete who graduated from Schaumburg in 1991, was part of arguably the league’s greatest moment as an assistant coach for her alma mater when it won the 2001 boys’ basketball state title,” Marty Maciaszek wrote in his blog, Mid Suburban Legends and Beyond.
Back on that fateful night, it wasn’t her high school coaching career that we reminisced about, but of her coaching middle school basketball at St. Hubert’s School in Hoffman Estates, while her son, Gregg, was there. It turns out that she coached against my husband’s teams at Our Lady of the Wayside School, and at the time she stood out as one of the only women coaches in the conference.
Kelly later added officiating to her roles, serving as a referee at middle school and high school levels, and eventually college. Once again, she was a pioneer as one of the only women to call boys’ games, and she took some heat for it. That night, she described being called an offensive name by an obnoxious fan — and the decisive action she took.
As I reflect on that night, and our chance encounter that led her to document our friendship on Facebook — which was the last thing she posted — I have to believe it was more than happenstance.
“We will only understand the miracle of life when we allow the unexpected to happen,” writes novelist Paulo Coelho. “If people really pay attention to their everyday lives, they will discover the magic moment. . . . That moment exists — a moment when all the power of the stars becomes a part of us and enables us to perform miracles.”