BY LIZA STROUT - When you grow up on a small island, you know everyone your own age. When you are the daughter of the island cop, you know everyone at the station. So when Island School teacher Theresa Caccavale first saw Patrick O’Connor, she was curious.
“It was Fire Prevention Week at The Island School, and we were out with the kids, looking at the fire trucks and watching the demonstrations,” said Theresa. “There was this firefighter who I had never met. He was my age. And I had no idea who he was.”
“It was October 13, 2009,” said Patrick with a grin.
Theresa is a smart woman, and she knew the quickest way to Patrick’s heart.
“Food,” laughed Patrick. “She baked. One day a couple of weeks after we met she came into the station with this plate of peanut butter cup cookies that were still warm from the oven. That’s when I knew it was love.”
Eventually the couple shared their first kiss - in front of a fire truck, of course.
The two have a lot in common. They both love the water and fishing. They both have fathers who were civil servants – hers a police officer, his a firefighter.Patrick grew up admiring his father and seeing how much satisfaction he got out of his job as a firefighter.
“I was in middle school when I first said something about being a firefighter myself,” he explained. “But really, it was at a career fair in high school that I made up my mind.”
Theresa had known that she wanted to be a teacher since she was even younger.
“I was seven when I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up” she said. When prodded by Patrick, she laughed and admitted that she flirted with the idea of being a travel agent for a while.“But really, I just always knew I was going to be a teacher,” she said.
When Theresa left the island to go to school at St. Leo College in Gainesville, she learned a lot. But her biggest lesson was how much she loved her home.
“It showed me how much of a water baby I am,” she smiled. “I hated not being out on the water.”
Her island childhood is important to Theresa. She grew up in the beam of the range light, played on the beach by it, swam in the water in front of it and used the tower as a landmark to give directions for years.
“Make the turn at our lighthouse,” she remembered saying as a kid. “We’re going to be out by our lighthouse. Let’s go swim at our lighthouse. It was just such an important part of my life.”
On the one-year anniversary of their first date, Theresa was attending a school PTO meeting.
“I would always call her after the meeting and ask her to go fishing,” said Patrick. “I did the same thing that evening, only when we walked past the range light on the way, I got on one knee and showed her the ring.”
“I said yes,” grinned Theresa.
Theresa owns a home in Rotonda, where the couple lives with their black lab, Mako.“We got so lucky with him,” said Theresa. “He’s completely trained and he listens. He isn’t crazy like some labs can be.”“You can get him going, if you start playing with him,” said Patrick. “But he knows that when you have had a long day that it is just time to relax. He gives you the sad eyes for a minute, but then he’s fine with it.”
The couple has one other pet, a bluegill that Patrick caught in a Rotonda canal with a fly that he tied himself. His name is Buster, and he has been trained to jump out of his tank to take food from Patrick’s hand.
It is an odd trick to teach a fish, especially for Patrick.
“I was down in Islamorada, where you can feed the tarpon by hand, and a tarpon tried to eat me,” he laughed.
When the couple has spare time, they like to go scalloping in Steinhatchee. Both are certified divers, and of course, there is always fishing.
His relationship with Theresa has been an adventure for Patrick, who grew up in Venice.
“All of a sudden, all of these people knew who I was,” he said. “They’d walk up and call me by name, they knew about my life, that I was a firefighter, all because I was connected to Theresa. I didn’t know a thing about them. I’ve gotten to know people on the island a lot better since then. It’s funny, people who come into the Barnichol don’t always connect Patrick who works there with the firefighter who is marrying Theresa.”
While Theresa is the teacher, the kids at The Island School have gotten to know “Firefighter Pat” pretty well over the last few years.
“Whenever I had spare time, I would go down and volunteer at the school, usually something like reading to the kids,” he said.
“It was funny,” laughed Theresa. “On his days off, he fishes in the canals around Rotonda where we live. All of the kids who come to the school from over there would give me a report. ‘Firefighter Pat is fishing in the boat again.’”
After the engagement, interest in the couple spiked among the students.
“The kindergarteners were drawing pictures one day, and a little girl showed me hers,” said Theresa. “It was me on my wedding day, standing alone in my dress. She told me, ‘Miss Theresa, Firefighter Pat isn’t there.’ and when I asked her why, she turned the page. She had drawn him in the boat fishing.”
Theresa calls that boat the nicest engagement ring ever.
“The week I met him, I had just signed on a house,” she explained. “When we got serious and he realized that he wouldn’t have to buy a house, he decided to get a boat with the money he had been saving. It’s our other black Mako.”
This weekend the couple will be married at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church. Between her relatives, his relatives and their adopted island families, the church will have to have overflow seating in the courtyard.
It was only fitting that Theresa, the water baby, was on a boat in the Pass for the World’s Richest Tarpon Tournament, but the average bride does not make the final plans for her wedding from the water.
“We were in the boat heading out, and I was on the phone paying for the cake and flowers, making sure everything was taken care of for this weekend,” she laughed.Theresa is ready for the life of the wife of a firefighter.
“Growing up with dad, the station became a second home,” she explained. “I’ve known a lot of the guys there since I was a little kid. I understand the long hours that Patrick works. I’ve had holidays at the station. None of it is new to me.”
Theresa began the process of adopting Patrick’s shift of firefighters pretty early on, and they quickly got used to the attention.
“I was their midnight snack person,” she chuckles. “If it got too late, one of them would call to ask when dessert was going to get there.”
The couple plans to go on a cruise of the Caribbean for their honeymoon. It will be their first vacation together in a while.
But first, the wedding. With family from across the country and around the island watching, the two will exchange vows in the church where Theresa has received all of her sacraments. Then they will exchange rings. His is engraved with a map of the island he has chosen to protect.
Hers is engraved with the image of the range light that has been such an important part of her life. Her lighthouse.
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