Our beloved Betty O’Neill slipped away peacefully on the morning of August 15th. She was 99 years young and a devoted wife, sister, and aunt, as well as a cherished friend to many. Betty was born July 3, 1921 to Clarence and Ella Plunkett Baxter in Zanesville, Ohio. Because she was born close to midnight, she celebrated her birthday on the 4th of July for many years.
She was raised in Pittsburgh and attended the Ursuline Academy, a boarding school for young girls. She spent many wonderful summers with her younger sister at Camp Horne, a camp provided for the children of employees of Horne’s Department Store where her mother worked.
Betty studied nursing at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing in Pittsburgh and graduated in 1942. She specialized in neurosurgery and loved the challenge. She was selected to assist the Drs. Mayo when they visited her hospital. There she met Philip O’Neill, a young doctor at Mercy, and they were married on September 11, 1948. They lived in Boston and Chicago as Phil completed his internship and residencies and then settled in Milwaukee where they lived for over sixty years.
Betty was a homemaker and volunteered delivering Meals on Wheels and working for the Hospital Auxiliary. She and Dr. O’Neill enjoyed annual trips to Sanibel Island, Florida and to Eagle River, WI. After his retirement, Phil suffered a stroke and required skilled care for four years. Betty spent twelve hours each day caring for him and keeping him company. Her devotion and patience were remarkable to watch.
During that time, Betty became involved in Forever Friends, an intergenerational program linking elders from St. John’s on the Lake with second-graders from Hillside School. She thrived on the interactions with these children and loved participating in field trips, school musicals, and monthly activities in the classroom. Many of the children and their families have maintained their friendships now that they are grown. She’s been included in family gatherings celebrating First Communions, graduations, and weddings.
Betty had an enthusiasm for living each day to the fullest. Turning ninety seemed to light up her spirit of adventure. Her love for travel took her to Broadway plays, Disney Land and Disney World, the Colorado Rockies, the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, Mackinac Island, and England. She went to Ireland and had so much fun she went back a few years later. Her Irish wit charmed the locals and she was an instant favorite wherever she went. She wondered on the way home whether ninety-three was too old to make a third trip!
Her true happy place was Sanibel Island walking the beaches and collecting shells. She gradually extended her time there to include three months in the winter and never tired of the sunsets. Septembers were spent in Estes Park, CO where she loved riding through the mountains and watching the aspens turn bright yellow. She was also a great fan of ice-cream . . . any flavor, anytime!
Betty was kind and generous. She began two scholarships, one at the Medical College of Wisconsin to honor her husband and another at Mt. Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa to benefit nursing students. She loved hosting these students for lunch each year when they came to Milwaukee to visit our hospitals.
When she turned ninety, Betty was the guest of honor at a lovely birthday party. Because everyone had such a wonderful time we decided to continue them and start a tradition. Every summer sixty-five fabulous females gathered to celebrate the birthday of this cherished woman. Guests were treated to a different theme each year and sent home with a big piece of cake to enjoy the next morning because (as Betty said) “There’s NOTHING better than cake for breakfast!” We will continue those parties as her legacy to forever friendship.
Betty is survived by her beloved sister, Margaret (Peggy) Baxter Byers and her four children, Ed Byers (Carol), Jeanne Hawley (Bob), Connie Adamski (Tom), and Robert Byers. She is also survived by O’Neill nieces and nephews, including Patrick (Mary Lou), Margaret Welsh, Michael (Cathy), Philip (Mary Ann), Kevin, Christopher (Fran), and Louise O’Neill, and Madeline (Frank) Fraas. She is further survived by her dearest friend, Sherry Power.
Betty was preceded in death by her parents, her husband Philip O’Neill MD and her brother-in-law Ed Byers. In lieu of flowers, please consider a contribution to the Betty and Dr. Philip O’Neill Nursing Scholarship at Mt. Mercy University. 1330 Elmhurst Drive NE. Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402. Attention Lonna Drewelow. Online contributions may be sent to: www.mtmercy.edu/giving
Betty’s family would like to express their deepest gratitude to Kanak Shah MD for the compassionate care and friendship he shared with Betty for many years. A special thank you also to Betty’s nurse, Cyndi Schweitzer, who cared for her with such kindness.
Betty O’Neill was our treasure. She was always ready for fun. Her warmth and wisdom guided us, her curiosity and sense of adventure delighted us, her patience and determination in times of struggle inspired us, and her sparkling brown eyes and open arms enthusiastically welcomed us. She was devoted to her Catholic faith and said the rosary every day. We will love and miss her always.
There will be a private gathering at Resurrection Cemetery’s Mausoleum on September 11, Betty and Phil’s seventy-second wedding anniversary. A joyful celebration of Betty’s life will be held when it is safe for us to gather friends and family together. It will be worth the wait!
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