SOUTH PORTLAND – All through her life, Jean Stevens O’Neill battled the effects of polio, a crippling disease contracted when she was 12 years old.

It made her tough and compassionate — a powerful combination that proved to be an excellent example for her two children and three grandchildren.

“All of the qualities you want your kids to have, she instilled in us,” said her daughter, Judy Heidenthal, who lives in Virginia Beach, Va.

Mrs. O’Neill died Friday in Norfolk, Va., following a brief illness. She was 81.

Born in Baring, near Calais, she was one of five children of Frank and Ollie Stevens. All three of their daughters had polio.

When Mrs. O’Neill was diagnosed in 1938, her father drove her to a Portland hospital for treatment and returned to his job as a border inspector in Calais. She spent nine months in Portland. Her older sister, Mildred, stayed with her.

“When they dropped her off, they thought she was going to die, because that’s what happened to a lot of people,” Heidenthal said. “But she made the best of it and recovered.”

Among her three sisters, Mrs. O’Neill had the most serious case of polio, affecting her spine and right leg. When she was 21, she traveled to Boston for back surgery and spent the next year in a cast from her shoulders to her hips.

“She must have had a very high pain threshold, after all she experienced,” her daughter said. “But she never gave in. She went to physical therapy throughout her life to maintain her strength.”

She graduated from Calais Academy in 1947 and attended the Holy Rosary Business School. She worked as a bookkeeper at Todd Brothers hardware store in Calais.

In 1953, she married Lloyd “Bud” O’Neill, whom she met in high school when he was a drummer in a local band called Biscuit Gilman. They later moved to Portland, then settled in South Portland, where they built a house in 1961 and raised their children, Judy and David, who lives in Portland. Her husband died in 1984.

Known for her generosity, integrity and perseverance, Mrs. O’Neill also was known as a hard worker.

When her children were young, she worked nights at the former Union Mutual Life Insurance Co., which would become UNUM.

“She had an outstanding work ethic,” her daughter said. “She would go to work after we got home from school. She sacrificed her sleep so that we could have a better life.”

When her children were older, she returned to days and worked in several departments before retiring in 1993 with more than 30 years of service.

Despite the effects of polio, she had an adventurous, competitive and playful spirit that showed itself whenever she traveled, to places like Florida, Hawaii and Iceland, and whenever she played cards or other games.

“Like a soldier who’s been through a war, she never really talked about her illness, but she was affected by it,” her daughter said. “She appreciated life and she had a deep faith in the goodness of people.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]