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Reaching 100 years is fun

Families flock to Lake Oswego to celebrate Marian O'Neil's centennial

REVIEW PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Marian O'Neil loved being the center of attention at her 100th birthday celebration in Lake Oswego. She was surrounded by children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Pictured here are (in back) Dennis O'Neil, Christy Shaver, Shelly Haugh, (in front) Marian O'Neil, Trevor Shaver and Crissan Haugh.

Marian Wurz O’Neil made it seem easy to become 100 years old.

It certainly looked that way as she sat in the middle of a long, long table at Nicoletta’s Table in Lake Oswego, surrounded by children, grandchildren, other family members and friends. It was hard to pick out O’Neil among the humanity gathered at the table because she does not look nearly 100 years old. But she had anticipated turning 100 years old for a long time.

“We have all long been awaiting the 100th-birthday milestone,” said granddaughter Christy Shaver of West Linn. “My grandma has always intended to live as long as her father, and great-grandpa lived to be 101.”

Despite the joyful event in Lake Oswego, O’Neil’s family originally thought it would be asking too much of a 99-year-old woman to come all the way to the Northwest for a birthday party. The family had planned to send her son Dennis O’Neil and her three grown granddaughters to her home in Mishawaka, Ind., to mark the occasion.

However, O’Neil is a stubborn lady. She wanted to see her five great-grandchildren, so she insisted on spending her 100th birthday in Lake Oswego, so she could be with everyone.

“I am real pleased about this,” said O’Neil, who could barely get her arms around all of her great-grandchildren.

“This is very much a special time,” Dennis O’Neil said. “We know how to celebrate birthdays. She decided to give it a try and I arranged everything.

“Mom didn’t want to be forgotten by her grandchildren. She feels she is being forgotten. Older people see so many of their friends die.”

Being forgotten by her family seems to be impossible for O’Neil. Her birthday party proved it. After all, she has been making people’s lives better for a whole century.

Marian L. Wurz was born in Mishawaka (which is located near Notre Dame University in South Bend) on March 24, 1916.

She grew up the daughter of a grocer who had to face down the Great Depression in the 1930s. The family often ate old food so nothing would go to waste.

“My dad told me once that grandma always preferred the taste of overripe fruit and didn’t know then that it was overripe,” Shaver said. “That was just what they always had growing up.”

In her youthful years O’Neil was a student reporter at the University of Indiana. One of her big interviews was with Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who happened to be revolutionizing sex in America at the time.

“He was pretty nice,” O’Neil said. “I liked his wife better.”

Her real vocation began when she married Wilbert D. O’Neil in Mishawaka’s St. Joseph Church, the church she still attends today. She had two children, son Dennis (who moved to Lake Oswego more than 40 years ago) and daughter Patrice. Later on she became the grandmother to three girls, Christy Shaver, Shelly Haugh and Laura O’Neil. Now she is the great-grandmother of four boys — Gavin, Colin, James and Trevor — and one great-granddaughter, Crissan.

Meanwhile, she was a pillar of small town America, working as the librarian for Saint Mary’s College, being active in her church, the arts, and Camp Fire Girls. She also enriched the lives of her children and grandchildren.

Christy Shaver can provide insight into why her grandmother is so esteemed. Especially precious to her are memories of visiting O’Neil in Indiana when she was 10 years old.

“When I arrived Grandma was waiting for me with hugs and kisses, and she and Grandpa took me to get an ice cream sundae,” Shaver said. “She also got us tickets to go see a Broadway production of “South Pacific.” It was so much fun having her tell me what it was like during World War II. We giggled and giggled watching the men wearing hula skirts and coconut bras.”

However, it wasn’t all fun and games with grandmother.

“My Grandma used to drive me crazy insisting that I eat all my vegetables,” Shaver said. “She was always telling me I would love rhubarb (Shaver never did). She would always park farther away than needed, so we could get in more steps. She would have my sister and I walk with books on our heads to help us stand up straight and tall.”

Grandma would also give little Christy a hard look when she would go for a second slice of cake.

“She would tell me to try a piece of fruit instead. She said it was the best candy,” Shaver said. “I would always roll my eyes.”

Despite too many vegetables and not enough cake, Grandma O’Neil had a tremendous influence on the lives of her loved ones, imparting her curiosity about everything and her love of learning. Her son earned a doctorate degree and all three daughters graduated with honors and went on to get master’s degrees in business, special education and library sciences.

Today, Dennis O’Neil is awed when he thinks about all that his mother lived through.

“There was World War I, the Roaring ’20s, the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the 1960s,” he said. “Her father lost his store during the Depression and mom had to leave college. But she went back in the 1970s.”

This Hoosier lady has had a sprightly old age. At age 78, she decided to take up figure skating. At age 88 she went on a trip to Paris. She still lives on her own, with a caretaker visiting just a few hours a week.

It seems that all that was left for O’Neil to accomplish in life was to turn 100 years old, and now she has done it.

But why should she quit now? For Marian O’Neil, who still has one year to go to catch her father, the good times are still rolling.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or cnewell@lakeoswegoreview.com.