The patriarch of the nomadic O’Leary family passes away at 101


Members of the O’Leary family sit aboard the Chicago, docked at the Washington Marina in June 1973. (Linda Wheeler/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist June 24

James O’Leary called me last week to tell me that his father, John, died in Loma Linda, Calif., at the remarkable age of 101.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever fill his shoes,” John said of his late father, “but I’ll try.”

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

Depending on how you feel about the O’Learys, you will find that prospect either heartwarming or terrifying.

The O’Leary family was notorious in Washington in the early 1970s. With a dozen kids in tow, James and Florence O’Leary arrived at the Washington Marina in 1972, raising a partially submerged work boat called the Chicago. They’d already been in places such as Guam and Hawaii.

They were, a Post reporter wrote, “like hermit crabs, scavenging any musty derelict boat and knocking around the world until they run afoul of the law.”

And afoul of the law they did run. They never paid their slip fees and were evicted. The same thing happened after they moored another ramshackle boat across the river in Alexandria. What the O’Learys saw as freedom — traveling the world, living by their wits, at one with the rhythms of the sea — others saw as something else, especially when their floating homes were deemed eyesores and hazards.

After a few years, the O’Learys left our waters and eventually wound up in California. Over time, local authorities banned them from living on boats, an injunction that John, 56, told me is still in force.

Florence died in 1999. John said that of the 12 O’Leary children who descended on Washington, seven survive. Four still live together. The other three, John said, have given up the family’s rambling ways.

I was curious about what it was like to have lived a nomadic, waterborne life — pariahs to some, heroes to others. This is what John said in his distinctive patois:

“When I was younger, I seen children and things, how they went to regular schooling. I seen where they would do events we wouldn’t do, like family get-togethers or birthdays and things like that. It was pretty struggling with me at several occasions. But then again, by traveling like we did, we learned so much. Everywhere we went, we got to learn the local people’s culture, not what you learn in books or what the state tells you what to do.”

What’s next now that James is gone? John said that if he’s successful in overturning the injunction, he’ll return to the water. Who knows, he said, he might even return to the Potomac.

A Giant step for a D.C. school

I heard not long ago from someone else, too: Victorie Thomas, principal of W.B. Patterson Elementary School in Southwest. She had some good news: Her school was the District’s top earner in Giant’s A+ school rewards program.

I like to think that’s largely because readers of this column linked their Giant cards to Patterson, helping a school that’s in a poor community pull in some big money. Patterson earned $11,890.48 through the Giant program.

“It is because of the generous donation that we will be able to purchase additional classroom resources to enhance the school’s literacy program,” Thomas wrote in an e-mail.

Reunions

These schools are planning reunions:

Crossland Class of 1969 — Sept. 5-7. E-mail cindyrohls3@
hotmail.com
or visit www.crossland1969.com .

Laurel High Class of 1964 — Sept. 27. Contact Gayle Wellford Snyder at 240-357-3484 or gayle.snyder@comcast.net. All Laurel graduates from 1950 to 1970 are invited.

Theodore Roosevelt High Class of 1969 — Oct. 25. Contact Cheryle Newton-Du Bose at cheryle10@verizon.net.

St. Cecilia’s Academy — Annual all-classes reunion. Nov. 22. Contact sca.alumnae@
gmail.com
.

Wakefield High Class of 1964 — Sept. 27. Contact Joyce Mills Wolfe at Wakefield64@cox.net.

Washington-Lee High Class of 1969 — Oct. 10-12. Contact Bill Wilber at 703-343-5948 or wgwilber@gmail.com or visit reunionmanager.com or Washington-Lee High School Class of 1969 Facebook page.

Send a Kid to Camp

It’s Hump Day, and that means it’s “Why Don’t I Eat at Clyde’s?” Day. Every Wednesday throughout our campaign for Camp Moss Hollow, the restaurant powerhouse is offering a special menu item. Order it, and the proceeds benefit the summer camp for at-risk kids. Today’s item is summer ravioli with tomato, mozzarella, basil and locally grown zucchini.

Want to enjoy even more Clyde’s goodness? If you donate $200 to $299, you’ll receive a $25 gift certificate. Give $300 or more, and you’ll get a $50 gift certificate. (Certificates will be mailed in August.)

To donate, go to www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attn: Accounting Dept.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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