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Carole O'Sullivan, philanthropist devoted to helping children, dies at 82

Carole O'Sullivan of Old Westbury died last month

Carole O'Sullivan of Old Westbury died last month after a long illness. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

She lost three children in their youth — two from cystic fibrosis at the ages of 6 and 11, the third to a car accident at 17.

And still, her daughter, Erin O'Sullivan-McCarthy, said this week, Carole O'Sullivan battled onward, making sure her home was always among the best-decorated on Long Island for the holidays and that, even after her devoted husband had died, she continued to make significant financial donations and give her time to ensure other children were better off.

O'Sullivan, 82, of Old Westbury, died Oct. 24 after a long illness. But her daughter said she leaves behind a long legacy of giving that impacted generations of children, some who knew what she'd done for them — and many who never did.

O'Sullivan donated more than $1 million to Holy Child Academy, an elite grammar school in Old Westbury that operates independently of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, according to a Newsday story in February 2014. O'Sullivan and her late husband, television executive Kevin O'Sullivan, whose global company helped distribute shows like "Dallas," "Little House on the Prairie" and "The Love Boat," also made significant donations to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and organizations like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

They were also big advocates of the largest private funder of pancreatic cancer research, the Lustgarten Foundation, which is named for the late Cablevision vice chairman Marc Lustgarten, who succumbed to the disease in 1999.

Adopted in December 1978, just months after the O'Sullivans had lost their third child, O'Sullivan-McCarthy herself nearly died as an infant from a pancreatic-related disease and had to have most of her pancreas removed, she said.

"I was so sick and my mother had been through so much," she said, "that the [adoption personnel] asked her if she wouldn't rather take another child, meaning a healthy child. My mother said, 'If she was my natural-born child would I just throw her away?' "

Instead, the O'Sullivans took baby Erin to Boston University Medical Center for lifesaving surgery. Then, Carole devoted herself to caring for the little girl.

"My birth mother gave me life," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said. "But my mother and father saved my life, literally."

Caring as she was, O'Sullivan was also strong-willed and set in her ways, her daughter said.

"She fought me to the end," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said. "But she loved me."

'She loved making children happy'

O'Sullivan was born in the Bronx on March 17, 1937, one of three girls born to Margaret and Harold Christensen, a policeman with the NYPD. Later, her family moved to Bayside and, following graduation from Bayside High School, Carole took a job with the telephone company.

It was there that a co-worker asked the then 18-year-old Carole if she'd go on a date with her brother, Kevin. Carole Christensen and Kevin O'Sullivan hit it off almost immediately, got married, and later bought a house on Bridle Path Drive in Old Westbury.

Along the way, O'Sullivan-McCarthy said, they also found out that their blind date wasn't the first time they had met.

As it turned out, Kevin O'Sullivan, born April 13, 1928, also grew up in Bayside. And one summer he was caddying for New York Yankees legend Babe Ruth when the two stopped at a lemonade stand run by young sisters at the golf course where Ruth was playing.

"My father said it was the worst cup of lemonade he ever had," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said. So bad, in fact, he and Ruth spit it out.

When O'Sullivan told his wife the story, she told him, "I was that little girl who sold you the lemonade."

Kevin O'Sullivan was a singer who appeared on television's "Arthur Godfrey and His Friends" and once beat Tony Bennett in a singing competition, his daughter said. He later became president of Worldvision Enterprises, though his big regret remained that he'd once turned down a TV show proposal from singers Sonny and Cher. Following his success, Kevin O'Sullivan counted many famous people among his close friends, among them actors Michael Landon and Buddy Ebsen.

"You hear stories about how a couple loses one child and it destroys them," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said. "My parents lost three children and still stayed together through everything. She loved him with everything she had and he loved her. . . . My mom couldn't draw, she couldn't sing to save her life. They were total opposites, but they just meshed so well. They were like each other's rock."

O'Sullivan counted among her good friends Ethel Kennedy, widow of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

"I think they had similar stories, with all the tragedies they went through," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said of her mother and Ethel Kennedy. "I think it was a bond between them."

O'Sullivan owned a florist shop on Post Avenue in Westbury called Flowers by Carole, and her daughter said she had seven sheds on her property filled with holiday decorations.

"She loved to decorate," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said, noting that her lawn filled with Halloween decorations attracted children and adults alike "by the bus loads" with blowup figures, lights, ghosts and other figures. She said at Christmas her mother always had Santa with his sleigh and reindeer on the roof as well.

"She had an angel room, a snowman room, even the kitchen was decorated," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said.

"She just loved the holidays," O'Sullivan-McCarthy said. "It brought her joy. She loved making children happy."

O'Sullivan was buried at the Cemetery of the Holy Rood in Westbury with her late husband and their children, Colleen, who died at age 6 in 1968; Kevin, who died at 17 in 1977; and Terence, who died at 11 in 1978. She is survived by O'Sullivan-McCarthy, her husband, Barry, and her children, Colleen McKenna, 11, and James McKenna, 9, as well as by her sister Elaine Herber and her husband, Richard, of Smithtown. She was preceded in death by sisters Joan Greene and Doris Baffi.

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