Stunt Memorial: O'Neil, Kitty (RIP)

Kitty O'Neil

Born: 1946

Passed: 2018

Her mother, Patsy Linn Compton, was a Cherokee Native American and her father, John R. O'Neil, an oil wildcatter, was Irish. They were married on October 20, 1940 in Wharton, Texas, USA. Kitty was born on March 24, 1946 in Nueces, Texas, USA. Shortly after her birth her father died in an airplane accident.

Kitty developed normally as an infant until she was five months old. She lost her hearing when she was struck by measles, mumps, and smallpox all at the same time. Patsy decided that Kitty should be home schooled, preparing for that task by taking education courses at The University of Texas. Her mother's goal was realized in terms of Kitty learning to speak normally and become proficient at speech (lip) reading. Kittys brother, John O'Neil III, was born on May 1, 1947.

Patsy attended university classes while raising two small children. By the age of eight Kitty was able to be enrolled in a regular public school third grade. Her mother taught many deaf children and was a founder of The Listening Eyes School for the Deaf in Wichita Falls, Texas, USA. Kitty learned to play the cello by sensing subtle changes in the frequency of the vibrations.

At the age of twelve Kitty joined a swim team. That led to developing an interest in diving. As a substitute for a diver who failed to show up, Kitty, who had never previously dived, won the first place medal. Six months later she had won the AAU Southwest District Junior meet. In 1962 Kitty's family moved to Anaheim, California, USA so she could train as a diver with nationally known diving coach, Sammy Lee. She spent four hours a day in the water. American Youth Magazine named her Youth Athlete of the Month. She won the 10 meter diving event at the 1964 AAU Nationals and was on her way to the qualifying heats for the Olympic Games.

Her diving career ended abruptly when she broke her wrist while diving, followed by a bout with spinal meningitis. For a time there was concern that she might lose the use of her legs, but Kitty persevered in getting back on her feet. Loving speed and competition Kitty moved to high speed water skiing. In 1970 she set the official women's water ski speed record, 104.85 miles per hour.

It seemed a natural progression to automobile racing and cross country motorcycle racing. It was an accident at a motorcycle race where she was aided by a fellow racer, Duffy Hambleton, that their relationship began. He accompanied her to the hospital and was unexpectedly put in the position of making medical decisions that enabled Kitty's two severed fingers to be reattached in a curved position during four hours of surgery. The therapy that followed enabled full left hand function, so complete that Kitty was again able to play the piano.

Duffy and Kitty lived on a ten acre citrus farm. He worked with her daily with voice modulation. Kitty would touch his throat and feel his normal vocal vibrations and then match them using her own voice. The constant goal was to reduce the high pitch that typifies deaf speech. It was Duffy that introduced Kitty to the world of doing movie stunts. Stunts Unlimited, an organization of Hollywood's top stunt performers, accepted Kitty O'Neil into membership in 1976. She was the first woman to be so honored.

In December 1976 Kitty shattered the world land speed record for women. At a dry lake bed (Alford Lake) in southeast Oregon, USA she averaged 512.70 miles per hour, bettering the old mark by over 200 miles per hour. She had driven a 48,000 horsepower rocket-powered vehicle named The Motivator designed by Ky MIchaelson, Rocketman Enterprises, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.

For a 1977 NBC Special about the world's best stunt men and women Kitty tipped over a burning van, ran with her clothes on fire, and then fell seven stories over the parapet of a parking garage. The filming of the sheets of fire going over the van required Kitty to remain in the van as firemen doused the flames. The stunt crew then pulled off the windshield to extricate Kitty who was still strapped in the seat of the overturned van. In 1979 her accomplishments were the basis for a Hollywood movie, "Silent Victory: The Kitty O'Neil Story," starring Stockard Channing as Kitty. Duffy Hambleton was an executive producer and many of the stunts were done by the real Kitty O'Neil.

Kitty retired in 1986, moved from Elk River, Minnesota, USA in 1993 to Eureka, South Dakota, USA where she lives with her long time companion, Raymond Waid. When asked why she retired she said it was not because of fear, but because two friends had been killed while performing stunts. Why Eureka? Kitty loves the peace she feels at her home overlooking Lake Eureka. Kitty has devoted much of her time to supporting the American Cancer Society's efforts in the battle against breast cancer. Not a victim of the disease herself, Kitty volunteers her time and image to promote the cause and encourages women to be screened and receive mammograms every year after the age of forty.

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