Nomadic family turned up far from D.C.

John Kelly
Columnist August 14, 2012

When I heard the voicemail message from John O’Leary, I almost dropped the phone. After all, James and Florence O’Leary and their 17 children were some of the most notorious sailors ever to call the Potomac River home. Back in the early 1970s, the waterborne nomads lived on a succession of ramshackle boats, infuriating local authorities.

Surely in the 40 years since they plied these waters, they must have scattered or become civilized.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But here was John O’Leary, one of the middle sons, telling me that nothing had changed. The O’Learys are still living the O’Leary life — or trying to — in the Sacramento area.

I wrote about the family in November, about how they arrived in Washington in 1972 and lived aboard an old workboat called the Chicago. They didn’t pay rent to Washington Marina and were evicted after a year. They turned up on the Alexandria waterfront aboard a half-sunk minesweeper called the Reliant, until that, too, was confiscated and destroyed.

Then, after their exploits were endlessly recounted in the newspapers, they just disappeared. To where?

Florida, John tells me when I call him back. Then Hawaii. Then California.

“We still are adventuring,” John says. The clan has shrunk. The family once comprised 10 boys and seven girls; only three of the sons and three of the daughters remain together. John is 54. Florence died in 1999. But patriarch James is still alive and kicking, at 99.

“The thing of it is, it’s a force to be reckoned with, the O’Leary family today,” John says. “The fact is we’re strong in spirit and will. Dad is 100 this year. He drives, and he gets around. He can stand up and give you an order and you still better jump.”

But time has not been kind to the O’Learys. Almost as soon as they arrived on the Sacramento River in 1985 and set up residence on a minesweeper called the Seamill, they started rubbing some people the wrong way.

“Right away,” John says, “state and city authorities say: ‘You can’t live like this. You can’t be here. You have no contracts. You’re trespassing, you have to move.’ ”

The Seamill, partially sunk into a sandbar, was considered a danger to other vessels. The O’Learys were eventually evicted, the Seamill towed and burned. (It nearly took four city officials with it, including the fire chief, as they scrambled to get off the flaming vessel.)

In 1987, the O’Learys returned in a vintage tugboat and a former Navy patrol boat. Those were seized. The O’Learys eventually lost six vessels in three years. They next opened a church in the living room of a house they occupied, with a 15-foot fiberglass steeple over the garage and plaster-of-Paris statue of Jesus in a life preserver.

But they were never happy on land, John says, and they showed up in one leaky boat after another until authorities banned them from living on the water, John says. The family filed repeated lawsuits against local officials, so many that the court deemed them “vexatious litigants.”

John’s current obsession is suing Sacramento over the name of the river and the city. He says that “sacrament” is a religious term and that the name, therefore, runs afoul of the separation between church and state.

I tell John that when the family was in Washington some people thought the kids were like Fagin’s gang in “Oliver Twist,” spreading through town pilfering and pickpocketing.

“If that was true, I think the police would know more about it than you did,” John says. “We never had any criminal record that way. I’ve never been arrested yet.”

And yet there’s something sad about the family, all of those kids kept away from the world at large, the Swiss Family Robinson as cult.

John says it doesn’t bother him.

“I’ve never been to any public school in my life,” he says. “You learn and adapt and you never come out any dumber than you started. Our belief that we have a right to be on the water hasn’t changed or altered one bit.”

John says he’ll continue filing lawsuits until the dwindling O’Learys are back in a floating home.

“It is very hard because it’s a different world in a sense,” he says of living on land. “In the water, every day’s something new. You’ve got more sense of control. On land, you’re bound more to rules and regulations and society. What the neighbors do, they want you to do.”

That’s not the O’Leary way.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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