Mary Margaret O’Connor, devoted mom and volunteer, dies at 57

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Mary Margaret O’Connor, mom, volunteer, singer | Provided photo

Whether she was exhorting people to get out on the dance floor and do the Electric Slide; breaking into Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”; hoisting “Welcome Home” signs at her USO volunteer gig; or rescuing dogs from shelters, Mary Margaret O’Connor made life a party and performance.

“The most passionate woman I’ve ever known in my life,” said her daughter, Caileen Donahue. “Relentlessly passionate.”

Her pure voice was her companion and calling card. As a little girl, she sang to keep herself company when her parents worked. When she was a teen, her talent landed her roles in high school musicals, including her favorite, “Guys and Dolls.” She played Sgt. Sarah Brown of the Save-a-Soul Mission. Young Mary’s rendition of the song where Sarah loosens up and finds love — “If I Were a Bell” — flowed from her like liquid silver.

A versatile vocalist, she could get down with the funk band she fronted, during the disco era, at Rogers Park clubs.

And she could change the magnetic field at boisterous Irish pubs with the plaintive “Spancil Hill,” the story of an immigrant overjoyed to find himself reunited with his childhood friends and sweetheart. Inevitably, someone in the previously rowdy crowd would have tears in their eyes when Mary sang the last line: “The rooster crowed in the morning/He crowed both loud and shrill/And I awoke in California, many miles from Spancil Hill.”

Her chin was dimpled and her eyes, ringed with dark lashes, were “put in with a sooty finger,” as the Irish say. When she sang, it wasn’t unusual to hear a hypnotized young man announce, “I’m in love.”

The Mount Prospect resident died Thursday after a series of strokes. She was 57.

Born in Chicago to Stasia Rochford of County Tipperary and Jim O’Connor from County Kerry, she attended St. Hilary grade school and completed junior high in Ireland. She graduated from Notre Dame High School for Girls on the Northwest Side and always stayed in touch with the classmates she called “ND-ivas.” She studied nursing at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Later, she received a master’s in marketing from DePaul University.

Ms. O’Connor worked at Rush University Medical Center until her children were born. When she arrived at her children’s grade school to pick them up at the end of the day, “I would hear her keys jingle, and I would get so happy,” her daughter said.

At different times, Mary O’Connor opened her home to four friends of her son, Billy Donahue. If the boys’ parents were having money problems, or there was family conflict, she and her then-husband, William P. Donahue, welcomed the teens to live at their house near Harlem and Farragut.

One youth had broken up with a girlfriend and wound up living out of his car — until Ms. O’Connor heard about it. “Oh, no, no, no, no, no,” she declared.

She took him in, too.

“My friends really loved her,” Billy Donahue said.

Ms. O’Connor enjoyed jogging, riding her bike and a series of dogs — Cassidy, Guinness, Murphy, Reilly, Seamus and Bailey.

She rescued Bailey from a pet store after Caileen saw the puppy cowering in a window as a crowd banged on the glass. It turned out he had thyroid trouble, and Ms. O’Connor had to give the rotund pooch seizure medication every morning.

Her death is a “tremendous loss” at St. James Church in Arlington Heights, where she tutored children with special needs, Pastor Matt Foley said. Ms. O’Connor founded DEAL —Divorce, Education, Advocacy, Liturgy — a ministry there for divorced Catholics. “She was actually very pivotal, very courageous,” he said, “standing up and inviting others who are divorced, to gather and help with some of the healing process.”

“She was fearless,” her daughter said.

Ms. O’Connor threw great pool parties and Halloween bashes. Raised on TV’s “Soul Train,” she couldn’t sit still when soul and funk classics played. One favorite was the 1981 floor-filler, “Double Dutch Bus.” And when she discovered “Beavis & Butt-head” on MTV, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen my mom laugh so hard,” Billy Donahue said.

After she led her daughter’s classmates in the Electric Slide at an eighth-grade dance, the other kids told Caileen, “Your mom is the cool mom.”

She always told her children she was proud of them. “Whenever she visited Caileen and me, our fridges ended up being full, and our laundry being cleaned,” her son said.

Mary O’Connor believed in the Irish versions of penicillin — ginger ale, and hot tea with milk and honey. She loved coffee, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and Cadbury Fruit & Nut Dairy Bars.

She is also survived by many cousins. Visitation is from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Cooney Funeral Home, 625 Busse Hwy., Park Ridge. Her funeral Mass is at 10 a.m. Wednesday at St. James Church, 820 N. Arlington Hts. Rd., Arlington Heights.

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