Helen Buck O'Neill, 96, a former amateur golf champion and Broadway actress and dancer, died Friday, Dec. 3, at Holy Redeemer St. Joseph Manor in Meadowbrook.
In 1940, Mrs. O'Neill defeated Helen Sigel Wilson to win the Philadelphia Women's Golf Championship at Philadelphia Country Club. A second-generation member of Huntingdon Valley Country Club, she was an eight-time women's champion at the club and won doubles championships with partners including her husband, Frank, for the Boyle Cup; her son Donald for the Griscom Cup; and Charlotte Buck for a mother-daughter title.
She once teamed with professional golfer Joe Kirkwood to beat pro Byron Nelson and his partner in a 19-hole match in the Lady-Pro Championship at Old York Country Club. She continued to play into her 80s, her son said.
Mrs. O'Neill learned to golf and studied dance growing up in Rydal. She stopped golfing in the early 1930s to pursue a show business career in New York after a talent scout saw her perform in a benefit for Abington Memorial Hospital.
"In those two or three years when I was in New York," she told The Inquirer, "we had a young theater group that used to meet Thursday night." Regulars included Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Burgess Meredith, and Margaret Sullavan, she said. "They're famous now, but we were practically starving then. We would meet, Jimmy would play the piano, and we'd dance."
Mrs. O'Neill had dancing and speaking parts in Gay Divorce, starring Fred Astaire; Say When, starring Bob Hope; and She Loves Me Not, with Meredith. She also performed in summer stock.
She had movie offers from Paramount and Warner Bros. but was homesick, her family said. She returned to Rydal and in 1937 married Frank O'Neill, a businessman, avid golfer, and wonderful dancer, their son said. The couple raised a family in Rydal.
During World War II, Mrs. O'Neill was a volunteer for the American Red Cross and at Abington Memorial Hospital. For many years she organized the "Gala Soiree" fund-raiser at Abington and later served on the auxiliary at Holy Redeemer Hospital.
She was an active member of the Huntingdon Valley Garden Club and the Pennsylvania Society of Colonial Dames and was a world traveler.
Mrs. O'Neill also remained connected to theater. In 1999, the stage in the auditorium at Pennsylvania State University's Abington Campus was named in her honor after she contributed $50,000 to the project. She was a graduate of Ogontz School, a private girls' academy that became part of Penn State-Abington in 1950.
In addition to her son Donald, Mrs. O'Neill is survived by another son, David; a brother; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1990 and daughter Deborah Dunham died in 1986.
A Funeral Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, at St. Hilary of Poitiers Church, 820 Susquehanna Rd., Rydal, where friends may call after 9.
Memorial donations may be made to the Penn State-Abington Arts Program, 1600 Woodland Rd., Abington, Pa. 19001.