Jane Deery, 80; oldest of entertainers, the O’Neil sisters

Eight of the O’Neil sisters gathered at Doyle’s to celebrate the birthday of Jane Deery (seated at far right) in 2007. From left, Julie O’Neil (behind bench), Maureen Cloonan, Diane Nessar, Danielle McGreal, Evelyn Kiley, Frances Cummings, and Ginny O’Neil.
Bill Brett for the Boston Globe
Eight of the O’Neil sisters gathered at Doyle’s to celebrate the birthday of Jane Deery (seated at far right) in 2007. From left, Julie O’Neil (behind bench), Maureen Cloonan, Diane Nessar, Danielle McGreal, Evelyn Kiley, Frances Cummings, and Ginny O’Neil.

As the oldest of the 10 O’Neil sisters who rose to fame in ­Boston and beyond in the 1940s and 1950s, appearing annually at the city’s Easter ­parade wearing identical outfits, Jane Deery was her mother’s chief helper.

“It was almost like I had two mothers: my mother and my big sister,” said Ginny O’Neil, who is 10 years younger and lives in Jamaica Plain.

Like her mother, being a parent seemed to come naturally to Mrs. Deery, who went on to raise 10 children of her own.


Mrs. Deery, who became an accountant after raising her children, died of a stroke Sept. 26 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She was 80 and lived in Quincy.

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“As I raise my own two kids, I realize more and more how amazing she was,” said her son Christopher of Cambridge. “She’d done more parenting by the time she got married than I’ve done so far.”

When they were children, Mrs. Deery and her nine sisters became celebrities in the ­Boston Easter parade, walking side by side in outfits sewn by their mother, Julia.

Their father, Daniel, “would even give up his beloved cigars to save money to buy fabric,” ­Julia told the Globe in 1963, four years after the tradition ended when Mr. O’Neil died.

He wanted their daughters dressed in matching finery so the family could stroll along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in style alongside the Boston Brahmins who normally commanded the news.


Many years, the O’Neil girls made the front page of the Globe or other Boston news­papers. The sisters were about more than fashion, though, and as their number grew to 10, their reach extended beyond Boston.

Several of the girls, including Mrs. Deery, learned to play guitar. All of the sisters sang and danced, once on an episode of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” They also performed onstage at many Boston events, appeared in newsreels at movie theaters, and were featured in numerous publications, including Life magazine in 1952.

“Jane handled it all so well,” said her sister Evelyn Kiley of Quincy. “She was a great example to the rest of us.”

The sisters had two brothers, one born before them, one after. Lawrence, the oldest, died in 1990, and Daniel Jr. died in 2010. Barbara Wampole, the second-oldest sister, died in 2000, and one of Mrs. Deery’s daughters, Linda, died in 2007.

When the O’Neil sisters were growing up, Kiley said, their mother encouraged them to turn chores into a contest, a strategy Mrs. Deery later ­employed with her own brood, to great success.


“Running a large household is not easy, but to Jane it was fun,” Kiley said. “She always said that no matter what you do, you should have fun doing it.”

Mrs. Deery’s children recalled that their mother loved camping and days spent at the beach, frequently bringing along her guitar to lead sing-alongs. Until recently, she and her sisters gathered to reminisce and often to sing.

“My mother and her sisters have always been extremely young and vibrant,” said her daughter Julie Berberan of Quincy. She called her mother the “youngest 80-year-old you could imagine” and noted that Mrs. Deery took dance classes three times a week.

Christopher recalled that during his childhood, “Saturdays were special” because “that’s when the sisters would get together.” The O’Neil girls, then women, would bring their children to a Goodwill store in Boston to buy clothes for a dollar a pound.

“We never had much money, so our parents had to be very smart,” he said. After the shopping trips, “we’d all go back to somebody’s house, and the sisters would all just sit around the table, talking and laughing.”

He also remembered apple-picking trips that led to pie-making parties.

“They used my grandmother’s recipe and turned one of their kitchens into a pie-­making factory,” he said. “And, of course they were laughing and singing the whole time.”

Jane Marie O’Neil graduated from Blessed Sacrament High School in Jamaica Plain in 1950. She was offered a scholarship to Regis College, her daughter said, but turned it down in favor of a telephone company job and a paycheck she handed over to her parents.

In 1954, she married John Deery, who was from the neighborhood.

Their wedding took place as a hurricane hit the area, Evelyn said, “but that didn’t get her down.” She added that Mrs. Deery, who had spinal afflictions throughout her adult life, “never let pain get to her and never complained.”

“She was a consummate teacher of joy,” Evelyn said. “If you were ever going through a tough time, you could call Jane and you would end up feeling better.”

Mrs. Deery was “daring and fearless, not at all afraid to be zany,” she said. “She loved to dance and danced her way down many a hallway.”

But she was also a highly ­organized mother and homemaker. At her house, “every shoe was lined up,” Evelyn said. “She was a tough act to follow.”

When Mrs. Deery’s younger children reached high school, she took night classes and received a certificate in accounting. She was hired by Aspen Technology and worked there until her husband retired. She saved enough to buy a condo in Boca Raton, Fla., where several of her sisters spent winters, Christopher said.

Her daughter Julie said she “lived a very faithful, honest, and holy life of prayer and hard work.”

Mrs. Deery was involved in many church activities and volunteered to drive the elderly. She formed a church group to help troubled adolescents.

“Kids were always coming up to her and saying, ‘Mrs. Deery, you’ll never know how much you helped me,’ ” Evelyn said. “She really understood teenagers.”

In addition to her husband, daughter, son, and two sisters, Mrs. Deery leaves five others sons, John of Stuart, Fla., ­Patrick and Neil of Weymouth, and Hugh and Joseph of Quincy; two other daughters, Mary Mattioli of Marlborough and Susan Kelleher of Boca Raton, Fla.; six other sisters, Diane Nessar of Hyde Park, Maureen Cloonan of Sagamore Beach, Mary June Hanrahan of ­Milwaukee, Julie O’Neil of Cambridge, Danielle McGreal of Marshfield, and Frances Cummings of Gray, Maine; 30 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

A service has been held.

On Mrs. Deery’s last day, family gathered around, Evelyn recalled, and when a visitor asked a nurse where Mrs. Deery’s room was, a nurse said: ‘Just follow the laughter.’ ”

“Everyone would gravitate to her,” Evelyn said. “No matter where she was, that’s where the laughter was.”

Kathleen McKenna
can be reached at kmck66@