Meet the O’Leary twins
Their lives began minutes apart in 1946 at Mercy Hospital in Fort Dodge and were intertwined through their first 22 years.
Jim and Bill O’Leary grew up on Fourth Avenue North where they ran a neighborhood candy store and enjoyed the outdoors, shared a Messenger paper route, attended the same grade school and high school, and went off to the same small Catholic college in Kansas.
Then the Vietnam War intervened in their lives, as it did in for millions of other young men, and the parallels came to an end. The twins received their draft notices in 1968. Each was left with a decision to make.
In the end, Jim chose to be drafted and serve: “The reason I decided not to fight the draft, I couldn’t stand the thought that someone who took my place would get killed.” Within a year, he had his Army orders for Vietnam and while he was not wounded, he suffers from the effects of exposure to Agent Orange.
Bill said he was a “refusenick” who opposed the war and believed that “it wouldn’t stop unless other people say no.” When he took his draft physical, he said, the doctor had concerns and gave him a year’s deferment but he was never asked to retake the physical. He went on to graduate school at the nearby University of Kansas and took part in anti-war demonstrations, “leading marches and carrying on.”
The O’Leary twins continued on separate paths but both became attorneys, like their older brothers Pat and Tom. Today, Jim works in Cleveland, Ohio, as a federal appellate judge for the Office of Medicare Hearings and Appeals and Bill has a private practice in Lansing, Michigan.
“We still talk on a regular basis and laugh a lot,” Jim said.
The twins are among five sons of Bill and Helen O’Leary. Jim was delivered 16 minutes before Bill. Their father was a delivery driver for Sunbeam Bakery before working for Farner Bocken and their mother taught eighth-grade history at Corpus Christi School. Oldest brother Ed, an Air Force veteran, is a retired U.S. Postal Service carrier who lives in Fort Dodge; Pat is in Grand Beach, Michigan; and Tom, an Army veteran, lives in southern Florida.
Growing up, the twins were good friends with Jim Bocken, whose family ran Farner Bocken. In fourth grade, the three created “The Store,” made from a piano crate and stocked with penny candy they bought wholesale from Farner Bocken. “We’d buy $12 worth of candy, run home from school and put The Store on the sidewalk, and sell the candy to other kids,” Jim said.
The twins were 10 when they got a Messenger paper route, delivering papers in the downtown area. “Jim and I did the deliveries, Tom did the collections and we split profits three ways,” Bill said, adding that he saved enough to pay a third of his college tuition.
Both were members of the St. Edmond High School track team and took part in school plays. After graduating in 1964, they chose St. Benedict’s, then an all-boys school, where brothers Tom and Pat also attended. Bill started in the seminary but left after his first year. Jim met the woman who would become his wife of now 47 years, Eileen, who attended the all-girls school in Atchison — Mount St. Scholastica.
Jim went to Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division in the Central Highlands but thanks to “some dumb luck,” he was assigned from patrols to division operations and served 13 months, 22 days.
“Agent Orange got into our drinking water,” he said, resulting in numerous bouts with cancer and he has diabetes. He has another surgery scheduled early this month.
“I didn’t know I would be poisoned by my own country,” he said.
Jim attended the Detroit College of Law and after graduation joined the Plunkett, Cooney, Ritt and Peacock law firm in downtown Detroit where his brothers Pat and Tom also worked. Today, he enjoys painting and writing short stories.
His wife, Eileen, is a playwright and fiction writer. Their daughter, Oona, is also a playwright and one of her shows was performed off-Broadway in New York. She is married to Maciej Kaczynski and they live in Chicago.
Retirement? “I’ve always got plans. It’s got to end sometime but I’m not going to worry about it. The two smartest things I ever did were to marry Eileen and get into law. And I’ve done well in both.”
Bill, after graduation from St. Benedict’s and earning a master’s in teaching from Kansas, worked as a high school English teacher on Long Island, New York, before moving to Africa to work at a mission school in Mansa. While there he met Geraldine, a native of Ireland who was teaching at a mission school nearby. They were married in 1976 and later returned with their daughter Emmeline to the United States to teach in Kimball, South Dakota.
Bill attended law school at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then joined a Detroit firm before going out on his own in 1996.
“I’m a store-front lawyer,” Bill said. “I’m not retiring for a few years yet. Like (high school classmate) Maureen Micus, I do write poetry and won an award in the Foley Prize last year.”
His wife is retired after teaching 25 years at Finney High School in Detroit and they live in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Daughter Emmeline practices medicine in Milwaukee where she lives with her husband, a radiology oncologist, and their three sons. Son, Conor, is a Detroit policeman who is also a lawyer considering a move to criminal defense.