Jean Rowlands O’Neill Hunter

Jean Rowlands O’Neill Hunter

Jean Rowlands O'Neill Hunter sitting with her first husband, William Stuart O'Neill.

SHELTON, Conn. — Jean Rowlands O’Neill Hunter, who spent myriad summers at Warners Lake in East Berne and was by many measures a “very impressive woman,” according to her daughter, Deborah O’Neill, died on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. She was 92. 

“I can remember her knitting on the float at Warners Lake,” said Ms. O’Neill. “She would sit out there with her sister, Carol, and me and my sisters.”

Mrs. Hunter first visited Warners Lake six months after she was born on Jan. 22, 1928. Her parents, Helen and Clif Rowlands, whisked the young Mrs. Hunter to the “Big House” on Strevell Lane every summer for vacation, according to an excerpt Mrs. Hunter had written for a publication put out by Warners Lake. 

“When we stayed in the Big House,” Mrs. Hunter wrote, “my sister Carol and I slept in the alcove of the best room in the house. In each room there was a washstand for cleaning up and a ‘slop jar’ for use as a toilet. The meals in the Big House were just great — three squares a day, cooked by Aunt Grace Strevell (in those days, everyone was an aunt or an uncle).

“All meals were announced by the ringing of the brass bell,” the passage continued, “and you’d better be on time. I can remember going to the smokehouse down toward the lake to bring in a ham or two for one of Aunt Grace’s boiled dinners — was that ever good.”

When the Rowlands family wasn’t summering in East Berne, they were back home, in Yonkers, where Mrs. Hunter attended high school and met the man who would become her husband, William Stuart O’Neill.

Active and intelligent, Mrs. Hunter was a cheerleader in her adolescence, as well as a cellist, and she was eventually accepted into the exclusive Colby College, in Maine.

“She was inclined toward music — the cello,” Ms. O’Neill said. “But my grandfather, her father, didn’t encourage it.”

To that end, Mrs. Hunter dropped out of college before she concluded her studies and took to the skies as part of the Civil Air Patrol.

“She was pretty impressive in her younger days,” Ms. O’Neill said, “and beautiful. Just beautiful.”

Mrs. Hunter married Mr. O’Neill after his return from military service and together they raised three daughters: Susan, Deborah, and Pamela O’Neill.

During that time, Mrs. Hunter worked as a teacher’s aid and “had a flair for decorating,” her family wrote in a memorial passage. The O’Neill girls were frequently adorned with Mrs. Hunter’s home creations, some of which, they say, are still being worn all these years later.

Mr. O’Neill died in 1976, after the family had moved from Yonkers to Fairfield County, in Connecticut. Five years later, she married Bob Hunter and relocated to New Jersey. Mr. Hunter died just two years later.  Mrs. Hunter’s last companion was Frank Barchi, whom she was with for 20 years until he died in 2012, her family wrote in a tribute.

“She’s a pretty strong lady,” Ms. O’Neill said. “She survived the passing of two husbands … I think the last one was the toughest because she knew that would be her last companion, besides her family.” 

Ms. O’Neill acknowledged the toll those hardships took on her mother, who eventually had to be relocated from New Jersey to Connecticut, where her family could keep her in better care.

“It broke her heart,” her daughter said.

Mrs. Hunter was enrolled in a senior home, where, according to her daughter, it didn’t seem like she was interested in the group activities that the organization held.

“She wasn’t, in her older years, a social person,” her daughter said. “She just had a few close friends.”

So, when residents approached the O’Neill daughters in the home after Mrs. Hunter died to tell them how much they loved their mother, their “jaws dropped.”

“They all thought she was a charmer,” Ms. O’Neill said, laughing. “She was a pip. I guess she just saved all the complaining for when we visited.”

“After she passed,” her daughter continued, “all those difficulties [of taking care of her] just went away. We hope we made her proud. We really do.”

Ms. O’Neill explained the significance of her mother’s absence at Warners Lake, where she had established strong bonds with the lake’s other perennial visitors, including Sue Rockmore, of the Warners Lake Improvement Association, who was like “another daughter” to Mrs. Hunter.

In Mrs. Hunter’s concluding paragraph on Warners Lake, she expounded on the importance it held in her life, from birth until the near-end.

“‘The Lake is just such a special place — unless you’ve experienced it as I have over many years, you might not understand,” Mrs. Hunter wrote. “Let me just finish by saying that I look forward to each and every summer at Warners Lake, and can’t wait to be with my ‘summer sisters’ and the rest of the great gang, who all seem like family on Strevell Lane.”

****

Jean Rowlands O’Neill Hunter is survived by her three daughters: Susan O’Neill Willis and her husband, George; Deborah O’Neill and her husband, James Saluk; and Pamela O’Neill. Mrs. Hunter is survived also by a step-granddaughter, Shannon Magee; her step-great-grandchildren, Sean and Bryce Magee; her nephew, Michael Merrill; and by her Barchi stepchildren: Patti Villone and her husband, Vincent; Barbara Barchi; and Frank Barchi Jr.

Mrs. Hunter has surviving nephews in Jeff and William O’Neill and their wives, Gail and MaryAnn, respectively; and her nieces Kathleen Reidda and Barbara Freeman, along with their husbands, Wally and David, respectively. 

Services are private.

Memorial messages may be left at www.altamontenterprise.com/milestones

Memorial contributions may be made to the Warners Lake Improvement Association, payable to WLIA, care of Susan Rockmore, 17 Strevall Lane, East Berne, NY 12059.

— Noah Zweifel

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