Jean Higbee O’Neill, 100, died at her home in Menomonie on Saturday, September 24, 2016. She was born in La Crosse on August 9, 1916, the second of three daughters of Jesse and Edna Coren Higbee.
Jean enjoyed telling stories of her childhood adventures. When she was a young girl in the 1920s, automobiles were still somewhat new. Horse-drawn sleighs were common on the streets of La Crosse in winter, and watering troughs stood on some of the street corners. Jean obtained her driver’s license in 1930 at age 14, and her parents made their Ford roadster available to their daughters. They enjoyed their unusual freedom to roam the city and countryside, usually with their friends in the rumble seat. Jean loved driving and was especially proud of her unblemished driving record of more than 80 years.
Jean graduated from La Crosse Central High School in 1934 and from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1938.
After college she returned to La Crosse and hosted a noon program on WKBH Radio.
In 1939 Jean married John W. O’Neill of Dodgeville, a medical student at the university. The two of them lived in Chicago and Madison until he completed his medical education at the University of Wisconsin in 1943. John was immediately inducted into the United States Army Medical Corps. During his service, Jean lived in La Crosse with their two young sons until the war ended and he returned from Europe.
In 1946 the O’Neills moved to Menomonie, where John joined the Steves, Halgren, and Long medical practice and later founded the Red Cedar Clinic with four other physicians. A daughter and two more sons were born in Menomonie. For many years Jean, like many women of her era, cared for her family at home.
The O’Neills ended their marriage in 1957. Jean was faced with the necessity of caring for her children alone and earning a living for herself and her family. She enrolled at Stout State College to earn a second bachelor’s degree and later added a master’s degree from Wisconsin State University-Eau Claire. Between 1960 and 1979, she taught English and social studies at Menomonie Junior High School. After she retired, she enjoyed encountering former students in Menomonie and remained friends with many of them.
Jean had a sunny personality. She was eager to see the bright side of things and strove to be easy to get along with. She had a wry and ironic sense of humor, and she took pleasure in intellectual games and challenges.
Jean had a firm sense of morality. She felt she knew what was right, and she held herself and those closest to her to high standards. She took pleasure in recognizing good people and praising them. Her firm convictions did not prevent her from being open to persuasion. A Republican for her first 50 years, she became a Democrat in the 1960s. As the war in Vietnam became an issue, Jean became part of the opposition to the war, and she remained politically active for the rest of her life.
Jean had a particular gift for relating to children. She could converse or play with a child without condescension, entering into the child’s concerns with genuine interest. Agile even in old age, she could crawl on the floor with a toddler or hold a child on her lap to read a book. She loved to read to children, and by doing so, she nurtured their love of reading.
Jean loved music. She played the piano and enjoyed singing with family members and in organized groups, such as Sweet Adelines and the choir of Grace Episcopal Church. She also loved to read, both fiction and nonfiction, and she surrounded herself with newspapers, magazines, and books in her living room. Even into her late nineties she belonged to two book clubs. She was intensely interested in grammar and words, including their meanings, their pronunciation, and their usage.
She was interested in genealogy, doing extensive research into the history of her family and amassing a trove of information that she eventually donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Jean served on the boards of the Menomonie Public Library and the Dunn County Historical Society, where she advocated for the establishment of the Caddie Woodlawn Memorial Park. She was a member of Wisconsin chapter AN of the P.E.O. Sisterhood for 55 years, serving two terms as president of her local chapter and on state committees.
Jean enjoyed creative writing throughout her life. In her eighties she joined the Chippewa Valley Writer’s Group. The group published a collection in 2007, when Jean was 91. Called Just Read the Darn Thing, it includes poems and short essays by Jean. Jean also loved to write children’s stories for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren,, assembling them by hand and illustrating them with photos cut from magazines.
Jean enjoyed a lifetime of summers at her family’s cottage on Lac Courte Oreilles in Sawyer County. Her grandfather established the retreat in 1912, and Jean was fortunate to attend the family’s centennial celebration with the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth generations to enjoy the cottage. In the Hayward area she took a special interest in the Courte Oreilles Lakes Association and the LCO Community College on the Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation.
Jean led a fortunate life. Her parents valued education and sent their daughters to college when many people couldn’t. She was fortunate in her health. Although her life was not free of pain or loss, her decline into old age was gradual, and it did not deprive her of the ability to converse and enjoy company and her intellectual pursuits. Furthermore, she was fortunate in her friendships, renewing and sustaining them over a lifetime and making new friends as she lost others to death.
Jean did encounter some serious challenges. Her divorce in midlife made her a single mother of five children – the youngest then just two years old – and required her to take responsibility for the economic survival of her family. And this responsibility came to her when her older, adolescent sons sometimes did more to create difficulties for her than help her overcome them. She faced these difficulties with maturity, modesty, courage, and good humor, and with the wisdom not to waste time lamenting her circumstances but to consider what needed to be done and to set about doing it.
Jean is survived by her younger sister, Nancy Pollock; by her five children: John O’Neill (Mary), Miki Odawa, James O’Neill, Barbara O’Neill, and Richard O’Neill (Mark Kile) and their families, including three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren; and by her P.E.O. sisters.
Jean was preceded in death by her older sister, Mary Cameron; daughter-in-law Suzanne O’Neill; and by her former husband, John W. O’Neill.
Burial will take place at Oak Grove Cemetery in La Crosse.
Gifts in Jean’s name may be made to the Community Foundation of Dunn County, P.O. Box 498, Menomonie, WI 54751.