Tara O’Grady ’94SVC, ’96G feels reflective. Looking out a sun-splashed window in her bucolic Beacon, NY, home, she absorbs the transformative changing of seasons. As the waning days of winter dissipate and daylight shines a little longer on the perdurable surface of the slow but steady flow of the nearby Hudson River, Ms. O’Grady breathes easy once more. The long, dark days of her COVID-19 experience are behind her; she can exhale.
“My voice has not returned to what it was a year ago because it is a muscle that I haven’t exercised during the last year,” she explained. “I was a full-time singer, doing gigs every night. I was touring. I was talking to Hollywood about producing my memoir, and then COVID-19 arrived—and my great pause, and even greater personal reflection, began.”
For the last decade, she sought work in the ever-competitive entertainment industry. The former teacher turned full-time singer-songwriter, recording artist, and author, Ms. O’Grady—who first honed both her singing and writing skills while a student on St. John’s University’s Queens, NY, campus—had found success. In addition to her five albums of jazz, blues, and folk music, she published her first memoir, Migrating toward Happiness: The Soundtrack to My Spiritual Awakening, in 2019.
A self-described “Queens girl,” she was raised in a musical, Irish-American household and followed her older brother to St. John’s. “My brother played saxophone in the Pep Band and got a full scholarship for doing so,” she recounted. “My parents asked me, ‘What are you going to do at St. John’s?’”
“So, without being able to read music and never being part of an organized choir, I joined the Mixed Chorus and I loved it.” It was as a member of this group that Ms. O’Grady truly found her singing voice. She began to develop an eclectic sound and a dynamic stage presence that would later draw contrasting comparisons to her influences, Patsy Cline and Billie Holiday.
Inside the classroom, Ms. O’Grady studied English and Communication Arts. She cites the beloved late Jack Franzetti ’45UC, ’46G, ’56Ph.D., Professor, Division of English and Speech, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, as a supportive mentor and an early prognosticator of her writing skills.
Recalling a first-year encounter with the professor who would mentor her throughout her undergraduate and graduate experience, Ms. O’Grady reminisced, “It was early in my very first semester when Dr. Franzetti kept me after class while questioning the legitimacy of an essay that I submitted.”
“First-year students usually do not write this well,” she was told as she was given a random topic and challenged to write an extemporaneous essay on the spot. “I did, and I must have passed his audition,” she said. “We became fast friends; he was such a great mentor to me.”
Powerful women have also played an important role in Ms. O’Grady’s life. Her mom immigrated by boat from Ireland in the 1950s. As a child, she would spend summers on the family farm, visiting with her maternal grandma and getting closer to her Irish roots. But it was her paternal grandmother, whom she never met, and the family lore of her adventurous spirit that would ultimately change the direction of her life.
The story goes that her grandmother defied the expectations of her husband’s and society’s conventional norms by secretly getting her driver’s license and embarking on a cross-country trip under the guise of visiting her husband's brother, a Jesuit priest from Ireland stationed in Spokane, WA. The stories of her grandmother’s seven-week odyssey, completed shortly before her death, would later inspire Ms. O’Grady to do the same. After being let go from her last teaching job, she was guided to take a symbolic journey replicating her Irish immigrant grandmother’s 1957 American road trip—and she convinced Chevrolet to sponsor the experience.
Now unable to perform in public due to her ongoing recovery and COVID-19 restrictions, Ms. O’Grady has again reinvented herself. She has spent the last year pursuing grants that help artists, making the occasional online performance to keep connected with her global fanbase, and trying to help others. She marvels at the generosity of the digital community, including her fans, who have helped to financially support her during this time when she is unable to perform.
“During the last year, I have learned life-altering lessons about love, compassion, healing, forgiveness, and, most importantly, have found that magic still exists,” she said. Her latest role is serving as a mentoring life coach to help people channel their mindfulness and inner creativity. “Life is a classroom; we never stop learning and growing.”
While she hopes to gradually get back on the road again and return to her role as an entertainer, Ms. O’Grady has been transformed and now wants to do the same for others. She has plans to host a Celtic wellness retreat in Ireland that will have patrons explore Celtic folklore and Ireland’s scenic beauty—all while exploring and finding their best selves.
As for performing, Ms. O’Grady is slowly returning to the stage. One of her first performances is a prerecorded jazz session and livestreamed discussion, “Tara O'Grady: Howlin' at the Howland,” hosted by the Howland Cultural Center on March 11 at 8 p.m. The performance in her new hometown—a historic and emerging arts community—brings her back to nature and is one small step toward yet another life transformation.