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Fred, Kate, and Robert are stunned and saddened to say that this Thursday morning March 12, 2020 Harriet O'Neal passed away.
It was unexpected; she suffered a severe stroke in her sleep on Tuesday, and was briefly hospitalized, but we do not believe that she suffered much. Her end was dignified and she was surrounded by love.
Harriet was a complicated and beautiful woman.
She was fierce but endlessly kind.
A friend of ours this morning noted that he knows he was like another of her own kids to her. One of the reasons he knows it, among countless reasons, is that she was not afraid to let him have it when he made rude comments about Walter Cronkite circa 1992 when we were 16 years old and Cronkite was practically a hundred.
Harriet had thoughts and if she cared about you she shared them.
There are a lot of you other “other kids” out there. And you know she would give her right arm to any of you who reached out to her in need. Even if you were a perfect stranger. Even if you voted for Trump.
She was melancholy and anxious, but she poured herself into lifting us up and infusing us with confidence and optimism. She taught her children to be us, to love ourselves, and to love the rest of you and the whole wide world.
We will remember strawberries and sunshine and snowfall in Utah; the smell of cedar and sawdust and saltwater and alfalfa hay on Whidbey Island; the October sun in Walla Walla while we studied the classics and pondered the promise of the future; we will remember our own little girls in her arms. We will remember all of us together—grandparents to grandkids—for Christmas in London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Stonehenge. We will remember family, a spirit of wonder and acceptance, sage advice and practical wisdom, and love, love, love. She gave us all of this.
Fred and she would celebrate their 50th anniversary this coming Christmas. They were married December 27, 1970. That’s about when things got weird.
But first, lets recap:
She was born May 24, 1945; they lived in Pretty Prairie, Kansas. Her father, Bob Youle, was an attorney who graduated from Columbia Law School on the GI Bill after serving on a ship in the Pacific during World War II. Her sister Mary and she were given the blessing of two or three mothers:
They were born to Mary Brownlee, who died when they were very young; that left baby Mary in the loving and capable hands of her mother’s twin sister May (Shaw) when both girls were little. Bob took care of Harriet on his own for a while.
A year or so later, Bob would marry Dortha Youngmans and together they would raise the girls and create a family in Kansas City. Dortha was “Mom” to both girls.
Harriet’s children remember the smell of Bob and Dortha’s basement, the Richie Rich and Micky Mouse comic books and the old Schwinn Bikes, the tree shaded streets and the unfenced yards of Kansas City. It appears from the rose-colored 60-year-distant-view that Harriet grew up in the postcard American Dream. It was probably a lot richer and more complicated and deeper than we can imagine; we owe it to Harriet that we can acknowledge that truth, too.
She was smart (actually we will say “brilliant,” since she can’t argue now). A valedictorian at Center High School, she went to University of Missouri (phi beta kappa), she had a Masters in French Literature from Kansas University. She saw beneath surfaces.
She lived in Paris for a while, which earned her a year of credit through an all-boys college, because that’s what it took to get to Paris back then. She saw the world first hand. She had opinions based on experience and study. She was a teacher and a bibliophile.
“Au jourd’hui maman est morte.”
Starting out her career at Southwest High School as a French Teacher, she moved to Bingham Jr High School where she met Fred. As for his story, we’ll get to him another time. We’re still working on his story. But as for who she was with Fred together:
They went to the uncharted territories: The Quetico. The Wasatch Mountains. Computer Aided Instruction. Whidbey Island. Telecommuting. Places and ideas other people hadn’t heard about yet, they went there together.
Anxious as she could be, cautious as she always was, she went for adventures with him, with suggestions of her own.
Kansas City, Austin, San Diego, Provo/Orem, Whidbey Island, Whidbey Island, Whidbey Island for their lives together. They were not disappointed, they uncovered love at every turn. They built beautiful careers, beautiful homes, beautiful friends, a beautiful family, and a beautiful life together for 50 years strong.
Fred brought along a wild red-tailed hawk for 22 years of it because that’s how he was. They added a half dozen cats along the way, and dogs, and a couple of horses. There was a cow for a while.
Some people lived in our basement because they needed help and Harriet helps. She was a gardener of plants and people. I refer you back to those “other kids” we mentioned.
Harriet was a woman of faith. Much faith. Many faiths.
The Langley United Methodist Church was her pulsing heart for the last half of her life, and she loved you, LUMC, and we love you for loving her. There was nowhere else in her life that she frequented on a daily basis for 35 years. LUMC, you are her home and her other family. Thank you from all our hearts for giving her a place to give of herself.
But we also note her past with other congregations: Randolph Methodist Church in Kansas City, where she was raised and where Fred and she were married; the Community of Christ Church in Kansas and Missouri (formerly the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints) -- her connection was through the O’Neal family; the American Fork Presbyterian Church (in Utah Valley, the only protestant congregation for miles); the 43rd Ward of the LDS Church in Utah (the community that embraced us in Orem because we lived amongst them, even though we did not belong– special love to the Ottos, the Browns, the Bohns). She has family in the Jewish Communities at Temple Beth Or in Everett, where her grandchildren are Bat Mitzvah, and in Minneapolis where her sister and brother-in-law and her nieces and nephews live. She was known to frequent Notre Dame in Paris. She wouldn’t say “No” to something good from Buddha or Krishna or Karl Marx where they had a point. It would be important to her to include all of these.
“He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside the still waters.”
Even in death she was selfless, thoughtful, pragmatic, and visionary: when she was healthy she thought ahead and made us listen to what she would want if something like this were to happen. If you knew Harriet, you will understand that she inserted it into the conversation more than once over the years, and she put it in writing, and she made sure we listened. It was a gift to us, set aside for if-and-when-she-was-unwell-later, to make her wishes known.
We encourage all of you to have these conversations. Please never miss an opportunity to call your mother.
Thank you, mom, for your every last gift. Thank you for everything throughout time. We love you and we cannot picture life without you. But we will continue to live because of you.
“May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”