Judith O'Hara's Story

When Judy Mannion was growing up, her family vacationed every summer at a resort in northern Wisconsin. She loved to swim and climb trees there, and most of all to float out onto the lake with her father in a boat stocked with fresh worms, leeches and their fishing poles. 

“My father loved fishing, and he loved that he had a daughter who could out-fish her brothers,” she said.

 In the stillness of the lake, Judy would listen to stories about his childhood. He was orphaned when young and raised by his three sisters in New York City. He made money playing baseball in high school and counted Lou Gehrig as a teammate. He put himself through NYU by working at night and worked on Wall Street, before moving to Chicago, where he was told an Irish-American would have a better chance at success. 

Judy inherited her father’s tenacity and sharp wit. She has built a rich life dedicated to intellectual pursuit, advocacy and family. And she has endured hardship, including the loss of her son and a debilitating stroke, drawing on her spiritual conviction, determination and the blessings of close friends and family. 

Judy was born in 1941, the fourth of five children to John and Helen Mannion, both first-generation Irish-Americans. Her father was a banker; her mother a homemaker with a liberal arts college education. They lived outside of Chicago in Oak Park – “a place of broad lawns and narrow minds,” she likes to quote Ernest Hemingway as saying about their shared home town.

She was an irrepressible tomboy. “My mother kept sending me to piano lessons and ballet lessons hoping she might turn me into a young lady. She eventually threw in the towel and said, ‘Be whatever you want to be.’ I wanted to be independent. I wanted to have a career.”

Her aspirations brought her to Washington, D.C., for an education at Trinity College in 1959. She went to museums and volunteered on Capitol Hill, becoming a political science major. Back in Chicago, on breaks from school, she and her siblings liked to volunteer at the national conventions. 

“It was fun to be caught up in the hoopla!” she said. 

After graduation, she got a job on K Street answering the telephones and tracking committee hearings for the lobbying office of Sears, Roebuck and Co. By night, she went to law school at Catholic University. 

She got involved in the Civil Rights movement and the push for desegregation, and later in supporting what has become a very successful drug and alcohol recovery organization, Oxford House. She was also an early supporter of Marion Barry for Mayor. 

While in law school she met Bartley O’Hara, a Notre Dame graduate whose college roommate and Judy were bridge partners during family vacations in Wisconsin. He was moving to Washington and looking for a cheap place to live. She helped connect him to the one no-cost option she knew – the DC Jail. 

In the 1960s as one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs, the jail offered on-site apartments to a few law and medical students in exchange for providing basic legal and medical services to inmates. The couple became close, catching up for hamburgers and beers between work and school. “We graduated the same day, then we both flunked the bar exam, then we both took it again,” Judy says.

They got married in 1969 and moved into an apartment near the Cannon House Office Building and started a family with three kids: Elizabeth in 1971, Bartholomew in 1974 and Mary Ryan in 1977. 

Raising young children on Capitol Hill was fun, Judy recalls. On summer days, neighborhood kids would splash in sprinklers on the Capitol lawn. And she remembers pushing a baby stroller to watch the news reporters set up for live shots during the Watergate hearings. 

As their family grew, they bought a house in Chevy Chase, Md. Judy built a practice in estate law, working out of a home office, while Bartley became an attorney for the Teamsters Union. Later he became a lobbyist. Judy could have decided to practice law for the financial rewards, but she chose not to. 

Instead, she took on elderly, bereft estate planning clients who were in trouble and had no one to turn to, said Stephanie Grogan, a long-time colleague and fellow estate planning attorney in the District. Her parish priest seemed to have Judy’s phone number on speed dial, referring a steady stream of needy people for her to help. She never turned him down. 

Their children went to Catholic schools and the family was active with its parish, Blessed Sacrament on Chevy Chase Circle. Bartholomew’s life was ultimately cut short. He died by suicide at age 19 while away at college. Judy recalls how friends from different parts of her life rallied around her then. 

“They just surrounded me with support,” she says. Her friends and family would come to her side again when, at 67, she had a stroke. She was in intensive care for 42 days. It paralyzed the left side of her body.

The need for full-time care prompted Judy and Bartley to sell their house and move together to Forest Hills. “She was determined to get better,” her husband says. 

Bartley lives on a different floor, but they have dinner together each night and go for a walk. He continues to work during the day and until recently was in business with his older daughter, Lizzie, who lives nearby and inherited her parents’ political bent. 

Mary Ryan now lives in Annapolis and has three children. Bartley is 11, Peter is 9 and Birdie is 7. Judy calls them “The Adorables.” “They come and visit and terrify the residents,” Judy says. “They don’t walk. They run and cartwheel.” She also gets visits from many friends who keep her engaged with the outside world. “That is something I would recommend to the world of elder living: make a lot of friends, friends that are diverse and interesting -- Oh, and join a book club,” she says, adding: “I am in three.”