October 31, 2014
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Key to penance...work on your dash
Warwick Beacon photo
FULL CIRCLE: Howard and Stephanie O’Brien with the clock that was stolen from their home 42 years ago.

The man on the end of the line simply identified himself as Billy. He didn’t offer a family name, which became understandable as he told his story.

There were unexplained “coincidences” and Billy’s underlying drive to do penance and, as he put it, “work on my dash.” Then he revealed what happened 42 years ago.

As a teenager, Billy broke into a house on East Avenue, but before he could case the place an alarm went off. He was scared. He panicked and ran to get out, but for an unknown reason he grabbed a clock from the mantle on his way out.

Even today, Billy can’t explain why he broke into the house. He wasn’t in need of money and he wasn’t looking to own more things. Life was good. He was happy with his new 750 Norton Commando motorcycle. He says he hasn’t stolen anything since that first time. Yet the action has had effects and will continue to do so.

Billy’s life has changed, while the timepiece has enriched the life of a celebrated Catholic priest and now promises to link generations of the family it was taken from.

Billy left Rhode Island in 1979, living in different parts of the country before making his home in Florida. He was back in the state last week. He came into the Beacon office carrying a black plastic bag. In it was the clock. His request was that the Beacon locate the rightful owner and hand over the clock. Under no circumstances did he want his name revealed.

“This is not about me,” he insisted.

Yet the story is about Billy. Finding the clock and returning it became a mission. Now, it was for the Beacon to complete the circle.

Soon after the break-in, guilt set in. He questioned what he had done, and although the clock’s chimes are beautiful they were a reminder of what he had done. He gave the clock to a girlfriend, telling her he had found it at a flea market and thought she would like it. But he couldn’t get the clock out of his mind even after leaving the state.

In 1987 he was back in Rhode Island for his mother’s funeral. His sister took him to the Flower Pot on East Avenue to buy flowers. It was the first of several coincidences.

“Chills ran up my spine and the hair on the back of my neck stood up when to my surprise we drove up the driveway to the florist, which brought me back to the scene of the crime,” he writes in an email followed soon after his initial call to the Beacon. “Could this have been a sign from my mom?”

At that point, he says he knew he had to track down the clock, but the trail had gone cold. He hadn’t been in touch with his friend for years and had no idea how to contact her.

Then came the second coincidence.

On a later visit to Rhode Island, he stopped at Oxnard Pharmacy in Buttonwoods to buy a birthday card for his sister. To his shock, his friend walked out of the store and proceeded to get into the car parked beside him. They talked, and finally Billy confessed he had stolen the clock he had given her. She remembered, but she no longer had the clock.

A friend of the family, Father Richard B. Martin, had visited their house and remarked on the clock. She gave it to him. But Fr. Martin was no longer in Rhode Island, and she wasn’t sure how to find him.

“I felt I now was on a mission to retrieve the clock from a priest who unknowingly was in possession of stolen property,” Billy said.

In February the former girlfriend called to report that Fr. Martin, who was living in Virginia, would be in Ft. Meyers to see his nephew’s two-month-old son. She provided a phone number, and Billy called. Billy made the four-hour drive to Ft. Myers for his “confession” to Fr. Martin.

“We met and went for a walk,” Billy relates, “and I told him of my escapade.”

Billy said a weight lifted off him knowing that the clock would now be returned. They continued walking and Billy guessed Fr. Martin “was contemplating what my penance might be.”

Thinking of a “Seinfeld” episode, Billy jokingly asked, “So, what is it, Father, 10 ‘Our Father’s’ and five ‘Hail Marys?’”

Fr. Martin laughed and then reached into his pocket to pull out a handful of change that he began dropping to the sidewalk.

“I asked him why he was throwing money away and he said he was just ‘working on his dash.’”

Confused, Billy asked for an explanation. Fr. Martin asked him if he was happy when he found money, adding that he was making people happy.

Then Fr. Martin talked about the dash.

He told Billy, “’When someone visits your grave they notice the date you are born and the date you died. Those dates are not what matters, it’s the dash between the years that’s important. It could be as simple as a wink, a nod, a wave or a smile, just doing good deeds to others. So, I want you to always work on your dash.’”

Fr. Martin said he would have the clock shipped to Rhode Island, but on May 3, at the age of 74, he died. A native of Warwick, Fr. Martin served as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, as a rehabilitation counselor and as a priest and pastor to parishes in the Richmond and Arlington Dioceses of Virginia. Considered one of his most significant services, Fr. Martin started Operation Starfish, a humanitarian program serving the poor of Haiti.

Billy called the family and a nephew agreed to get the clock after Fr. Martin’s funeral and return it to Warwick. Evidently, that wasn’t all that easy, as a priest’s possessions become those of the diocese after his death. But when the story and intent was revealed, the clock was released.

The final leg of the clock’s trip came together quickly thanks to the efforts of Melissa Coutcher in the Assessor’s Office. She went through the land records to find Howard and Stephanie O’Brien sold the house Billy had broken into in July 1981. She then checked to see if they still owned property in Warwick. She hit pay dirt. They own a house in Governor Francis Farms.

On Sunday afternoon, a call to the O’Briens confirmed they once owned the East Avenue house and, yes, they remembered a break-in and the theft of a clock.

Ten minutes later, Mrs. O’Brien opened the door. She looked in disbelief and then called to her husband.

“It’s Lillian’s clock,” she said.

Her husband joined her and for a moment they stood, just looking at it.

“Oh for goodness sake, I don’t believe it,” she said.

They wanted to hear the story, and as it unfolded Mrs. O’Brien got out some furniture oil and polished the clock’s wooden case.

“Hey, Lillian,” she said looking up, “it’s your clock.”

Lillian was her mother-in-law. She was given the clock on her retirement from the Providence Journal, where she had worked in the circulation department.

The O’Briens have been married for 67 years. He will soon be celebrating his 91st birthday. She is 91.

“I go for the young guys,” she joked.

The room went silent. Faintly, the clock ticked. They read the obituary of Fr. Martin.

“This is not happening, no way,” she says, looking at the clock. It chimed and moments later, like echoes, other clocks in the house chimed.

They talked about the break-in and recalled how a portion of their property was condemned for the construction of Route 295.

“He’s a good person,” she said of Billy. “I’m going to remember him in my prayers.”

With three children, six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, Mrs. O’Brien already knows they will bequest the clock to one of the great-grandchildren. And like the clock, she knows the story will live on.

And Billy’s take?

“Rest in peace Fr. Martin, and thank you for making me a better man – forever working on my dash,” he said when learning of the clock’s return this week.


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