When Irish Eyes Are Smiling
August 25, 2022Jim Oswald

What strikes me the most about Michael is his piercing eyes and an ever-so-slight hint of mischievousness in his smile. At 90, Michael’s eyes hint at a life full of experiences and memories. They seem to always convey a smile.

He was raised on a 50-acre dairy and agricultural farm in Ireland where the need to do chores was the priority over frivolous endeavors such as going out to movies and lazing around the house.

“We had plenty to eat on the farm,” explained Michael. “There was no money though because there were 10 of us kids.”

That said, there was time for falling in love. While he was in high school, he began dating Sheila and they became sweethearts. It was a match made in heaven, as both of their families got along as well which was important growing up in a small rural community.

The world was changing quickly for the family and Michael’s father, tired of farming, led the way by seeking fortune in the great Northwest of the United States — not for gold, but in the timber and logging industry.

In April of 1906, his father arrived in San Francisco – a day before the infamous 7.9 earthquake shook the city. Despite the tragedy that left about 3,000 people dead and even more San Franciscans homeless, Michael’s father was able to shelter in one of the many tent setups on Twin Peaks for those without a home. Over time, he made his way to his destination in Lakeview, Oregon, where he began his new job in the logging industry.

As for Michael, he was getting the bug to come to the U.S. as well. In between the time his father moved, his sister and other family members also made their way to California and Oregon. Not wanting to be left behind, Michael, at age 17, made his way to Oregon and took a job making boxes for ammunition and working on a sheep farm.

Eventually, Michael joined the U.S. Army and was stationed with the 52nd ordinance ammunition company which, as he explains, had the largest stockpile of ammunition in Korea at the time.
He would serve in Seoul, South Korea shortly after the United Nations took back the city during its second campaign in the region in 1951.

In 1954, Michael’s commanding officer paved the way for him to become a U.S. citizen, which he did while still living in Seoul.

When his South Korean tour was done, he returned to Ireland, and to his sweetheart, Sheila. Her brother sold Michael a car and as he recalls, “put in a good word for him with his sister” about marrying him. It worked! The two married in Ireland in 1957 and shortly after, moved to San Francisco where they bought their first house.

The house Michael lives in today which is just blocks away from that first house was the last house he and Sheila bought together in 1968. It is here they grew their family, raising two daughters and a son, and weathered decades of change in San Francisco and the country. The Summer of Love, Patty Hearst, Watergate, yet another destructive earthquake (Loma Prieta), and 30 years later, a city that was quickly growing as a result of the tech boom — the modern-day “Gold Rush” hitting the state.

While he busied himself with work as a structural pest control officer in the city, the family took many trips back to Ireland to visit family. Like many families, they had their disagreements and dramas, particularly as the two girls grew up to become independent women. While these disagreements might have gotten heated at times, Michael says he instilled one golden rule to quell any lingering anger or resentments.

“No matter what, when the day is done, when we go to bed, we say I love you,” Michael explained.

In 2020, the pandemic hit. It was an isolating, and scary time for many, including Michael and Shelia, as news of the spread of COVID began to gain momentum tuning the health crisis into a full-blown pandemic. Shelia, Michael’s wife of 63 years, became ill that spring with a bad cough and passed away. Not much was known about coronavirus at that time, and Michael does not know for sure if that was the cause of Shelia’s death, but he suspects it was.

Michael was also struggling with his own health issues including limited vision brought on by macular degeneration. His ability to cook meals safely for himself was dwindling, so in 2022 his sister-in-law turned him on to Meals on Wheels. Previously she had been delivering meals to him she made in her home in Petaluma.

Michael enjoyed cooking – especially baking whole wheat bread – a skill he learned while living in Oregon. Today, he finds it hard to stand in one position for a long time. He receives two visits weekly from Meals on Wheels drivers who check in on him and drop off a week’s worth of meals and side items such as bread, fruit, and milk.

“They care about what they’re doing; you can see it in their faces,” says Michael. “Everyone that delivers, they are smiling. I would recommend them to anyone.”
Michael is particularly grateful to Meals on Wheels social worker, Kimberley. During a visit, she helped him get set up with Paratransit which he now uses regularly to get to his doctor’s appointments at the VA.

“You people (Meals on Wheels) are so dedicated; it’s really inspiring,” says Michael. “It gives you such a great feeling that there are very compassionate people out there.”

Related: Watch NBC Bay Area Story >>

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