|Articles on Tony
This article by BILLY COX appeared on February 24, 2010 Page: A01 Section: A of the Arcadia ???.
The limbs are gone, not the laughter !
Triple amputee channels his optimism into an unlikely arena: comedy
Tony O'Connor can't tolerate a lot of whining. Not after living most of his life without both legs and an arm.
And that explains why the 59-year-old Vermont snowbird is looking for another gig as a standup comic. No joke. Because for every whiner out there who needs to shut up, there's somebody else who can use a boost. The seasonal resident of what he calls a "double-wide blowaway" can testify. "I guarantee you, at some point, life is going to knock you off your feet. Guaranteed," O'Connor says. "So you can think about how little you've got left or how much you've got left. But no matter how bad things get, you can't take yourself too seriously. If you do, don't involve me with it. Go off and do it by yourself."
He's played his G-rated shtick at churches, retirement homes and open-mic nights at Visani's Comedy Zone in Port Charlotte. Previous incarnations as a federal border guard, social worker and gubernatorial candidate provide him with endless grist. He can also mine his exploits from the golf links and the racquetball courts, thanks to fiberglass prosthetics.
And he can talk about his violent encounter with mortality. He didn't see the light or have an out-of-body experience. But he'll never forget the sensation when they pulled the sheet over his head. "It was close to nirvana," O'Connor says. "I had no fear. There was peace and quiet and beauty. Good times."
O'Connor was just 16 when it happened. The New York native was playing around in a Brooklyn train yard when he stood atop a snow-covered boxcar to hurl a snowball at one of his buddies. His right hand grazed a low-hanging live wire that sent 11,000 volts blasting through his extremities and ultimately resulted in a triple amputation. There's a long back story about physical rehab and life's strange twists. But the highlights are an enduring 34-year marriage, a family, and a 27-year career as a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officer.
Consequently, when he gives motivational talks to schoolkids, he asks them to close their eyes and imagine what they're capable of doing. "Then I tell them, 'What you're really capable of is double that, plus 20 percent,'" says the man who doesn't fear death. "Because you're a lot stronger than you can imagine."
One of the many people he met on the job, Robert Gaudreau, can only venture a theory about O'Connor's infectious optimism. A retired Canadian major general and former leader of the United Nations protection force in the former Yugoslavia, Gaudreau's curiosity over the one-armed border guard developed into a friendship. During the summer, he attends O'Connor's regionally famous Civil War roundtable discussions at the latter's home in Newport, Vt., where speakers have included the likes of historians James MacPherson and Ed Bearss.
"What impresses me to no end is Tony's tremendous mental strength," Gaudreau says. "To have so much determination to overcome adversity, and to face it so early in life -- it had to be in him from the beginning."
Henry Gross of Naples gets a little irritated when he hears O'Connor promote himself as an "amputee comic," and refuses to acknowledge the physical limitations. "I understand everybody's got to hook into some unique angle and I know everybody wants to watch a train wreck," he says. "But we're all damaged goods, we're all troubled by something. But Tony's the type of guy who was gonna be successful no matter what. So I'm not gonna buy into the amputee comic stuff."
Gross grew up in O'Connor's neighborhood and knew him before the accident. Rock 'n' roll trivia buffs will remember Gross as the lead guitarist for Sha Na Na, and/or the one-hit wonder whose haunting ballad "Shannon" climbed the charts in 1976. Gross says the train-wreck crowd will be disappointed in O' Connor's act. He says his old buddy is "genuinely funny" and at home with an audience. "But I do wonder if it's really effortless, or is he like a guy who's busy juggling balls 23 hours a day except for that one hour he's up on stage?"
No doubt, O' Connor stays busy. In 2008, the man who served on Vermont's Physically Disabled Association ran for governor as an independent, and his 1 percent finish put him squarely in the middle of a seven-candidate race. Among the planks in his clean-energy platform was the decriminalization of marijuana. O'Connor says America's archaic drug laws are as crazy as the way they make some people act.
True story: O'Connor caught a guy trying to cross the U.S. border with hashish in his underwear. The scofflaw said he didn't know how it got there. There was this wild party last night. And somehow he got stuck with someone else's undies. Recalls O'Connor, "Even his own lawyer wound up laughing at that one."