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Winifred O’Reilly dies; mother of 14 created a Chicago performing arts dynasty

Winifred O'Reilly.

It would be hard to find a Chicago theater or art school that doesn't have some link to Winifred O'Reilly and the family she raised to love the arts. She was once featured on "This American Life." | Provided photo

It would be hard to find a Chicago theater or art school that doesn’t have some link to Win O’Reilly.

A performing arts progenitor, she had 14 children and raised them in a home filled with music and milk that never had a chance to get sour. (There were so many O’Reillys that the bottles were drained the day they got delivered.) On hot summer nights, Mrs. O’Reilly — a trained soprano, director and writer — would walk them down to a cool pier at Crystal Lake, where they’d sing “I See the Moon.”

Her 14 children, 37 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren include a host of singers, actors, writers, teachers, directors and musicians.

An experienced child-wrangler, she directed 65 young people in a 1973 production of “Godspell” at St. Thomas Church in Crystal Lake.

Through her own involvement or that of her family, she’s connected to the old Body Politic theater, the Chicago Cultural Center, Columbia College Chicago, the Court Theatre, Curious Theatre Branch, the Goodman Theatre, Primus Theatre, Rhinofest, the School of the Art Institute, Steppenwolf Theater Company, Theater Oobleck, the Victory Gardens Theater and the Woodstock Opera House. On the occasions when the extended O’Reilly clan gives a concert, the stage is full.

Mrs. O’Reilly, who was 94 and had congestive heart failure, died Monday at the Renaissance St. Luke senior community at 1501 W. Belmont, according to her daughter Jamie O’Reilly, who’s a singer.

The daughter said the last thing she said was, “I thought I heard a baby crying.”

She was born in Cleveland, the daughter of artist Otto Giebel and pianist Margaret Giebel, who’d lost four other infants within days of their births. Her family moved to Jefferson Park, where she attended St. Cornelius grade school. She studied music and voice at Immaculata High School and at Mundelein College and Loyola University, where she once sang the lead role in “Aida.”

She met her future husband James O’Reilly at Loyola, and they were married in 1947. He was an actor and director.

Winifred Giebel O’Reilly on her wedding day, with a bouquet of her favorite flowers, lilies of the valley. | Provided photo

They had nine girls and five boys in 16 years. There was only one set of twins — the last two children. The couple started out raising the first seven in the city, where, her daughter said, she was always looking out for their interests. In the days when people had ice delivered to cool their iceboxes, Mrs. O’Reilly saw one of the trucks drop a big chunk of ice.

“She took the baby buggy, and she put the ice block in the baby buggy,” her daughter said. It was an easy decision to push it home. “She said she had to keep the milk [at home] cold.”

In 1956, the O’Reillys moved to Crystal Lake. Though their marriage later broke up, “They built a family together, and she continued it” with tenacity and ingenuity, said another daughter, Bridget.

Dinner some days might be Velveeta sandwiches, or peanut butter-and-jelly. Mrs. O’Reilly learned how to cook with organ meats. And she filled everybody up with her famously light baking-powder biscuits.

She gave private voice and drama lessons. Providence and the Crystal Lake community seemed to look out for her. The family received tuition breaks from St. Thomas the Apostle school. At Thanksgiving, the O’Reillys would find a turkey and the trimmings left at their doorstep.

Win O’Reilly and son Beau. | Provided photo

When her son Beau was about 12, one of his legs gave out and wouldn’t support him.

“You walked from home to the school to get me, and you came to the classroom, and you picked me up,” lifting him by the trunk, he said in a conversation with her on the public radio show “This American Life.’’ He recalled her carrying him more than a mile — with stops for rests — to a doctor’s office, though he was already about 5-foot-9 and “My feet dragged along the sidewalk.” The next day, his leg was fine. “What I remember most about it,” he said, “is that feeling of being taken care of by you.”

“That’s what a mother does,” she replied.

At one point, her pastor asked Mrs. O’Reilly to coordinate a concert for the neediest people in the parish. Afterward, he handed her the fundraising check. He’d always intended that her family would benefit but knew, if he told her that, she wouldn’t have agreed to participate.

Mrs. O’Reilly helped found the choir at St. Thomas church and the Performing Arts Community Theatre in Crystal Lake.

She was more intellectual than earth mother, according to her daughters. Still, her brood sometimes grew when she sheltered teens estranged from their parents.

“So many of our friends were taken in by my mom,” Bridget O’Reilly said.

During the Vietnam War, “She wrote personal letters for my brothers and my brothers’ friends as conscientious objectors,” Jamie O’Reilly said.

A singer, director and writer, Win O’Reilly with daughters Jamie O’Reilly (standing behind her), Dorothy (to right of Jamie) and Cecilie (seated, in blue striped shirt). | Provided photo

Around 1972, when the youngest — Bridget and her twin sister Bernadette — were about 8, Mrs. O’Reilly took a job proofreading galleys for Black Dot Publishing in Crystal Lake. Later, she went to work in downtown Chicago for the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“She used to get up early in the morning and brush our hair, and then I would go back to bed, and then she’d go to work,” Bridget said.

“On Saturdays, she would sit at the big dining-room table, peeling potatoes,” Jamie O’Reilly said. She’d be listening to opera, “and if you wanted to sit with her, you had to be quiet.”

In 1987, Mrs. O’Reilly moved back to the city. In 1992, her daughters said, she helped found Primus Theatre at the Chicago Cultural Center for actors 55 and older.

A lover of pinochle and wordplay, “She kept saying, ‘I’ve got to go before my mind does,’ ” Jamie O’Reilly said. Playing Scrabble against Jamie about 10 days before she died, “She won against me by 60 points.”

In her final days, as her children and grandchildren brought in the great-grandchildren for visits, she told them, “Thank you for bringing me all these beautiful people.”

Her viewing was held at home. “She loved cardinals,” Jamie O’Reilly said. “We made sure her nightgown had cardinals on it.”

Services have been held.

Mrs. O’Reilly used to list her children in the prayer they would kneel and say together each night when they were small: “God bless Mommy, Daddy, Willem, Cecilie, Chris, Gloria, Beau, Dorothy, Beth Ann, Kate, Jamie, Ned, Henri, Beano, Bridget and Bernadette, all our aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, friends, and benefactors, all those we love and those who love us. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.”

Part of the extended O’Reilly clan with matriarch Win O’Reilly. | Provided photo