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Catherine Barry of Port Washington, former teacher, choir singer, dies at 80

Catherine Barry, educator and longtime Port Washington resident,

Catherine Barry, educator and longtime Port Washington resident, died at 80 on Dec. 3, 2019. Credit: Lifetouch

They met by accident, in a matter of speaking.

She was a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College; he was a junior at St. John's University. And though they'd grown up barely a block apart in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, Catherine O'Brien and Michael J. Barry Sr. had run in different social circles and gone to different schools as kids.

But on this night, they found themselves in a car together, headed to a dance. She was on a date with another boy, he was on a date with another girl, each among three couples as he drove his mother's Nash along Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

"Then," Michael J. Barry Sr. said Monday, "everybody stopped. Except for the guy behind me."

Barry said the responding officer told him and the other kids at the accident scene: "Go lay on the side of the road and you've got your tuition paid the next four years."

But in reality, it was a fender bender, Barry said. He and the carload of kids continued on to the dance.

"The next day," he said, "one guy calls a lawyer. Then the girl I was dating said she needed the money for clothing for work, and said she was getting a lawyer, too. I'm like, 'This is my mother's car insurance — and I'm paying for it!' But everyone figured they'd get money."

Everyone except Catherine O'Brien.

Turned out, she was the only one even remotely injured: whiplash. Yet of the five other kids in the car, Barry said, she was the only one who didn't get a lawyer. 

As Michael Barry recalled of that moment: "I figured I'd found an honest woman."

So he dumped the girl he was dating and asked out Catherine. A few years later, on July 22, 1961, the two got married.

Catherine Barry died Dec. 3 at her home in Port Washington after a 3 1/2-year battle with breast cancer. She was 80.

She leaves behind three sons, eight grandchildren, her husband of 58 years, and a legacy of goodwill and good service, having taught preschool for years at the Child's World Nursery School in Port Washington and later serving as a fourth grade teacher at the St. Peter of Alcantara School in Port Washington, where she taught for 19 years.

For years, she also sang in the choir at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church in Port Washington.

"My dad, he was drawn to the fact she was honest about what happened and wasn't looking to sue anybody," said son Michael Barry Jr., of Manhasset, who ironically is the head of media and public affairs for the Insurance Information Institute in Manhattan. "She wasn't going to sue when she wasn't really injured."

Catherine Barry (nee O'Brien) was born July 26, 1939, the only child of Anne (Feeney) and Michael O'Brien. Her dad was a union electrician who'd worked wiring the Empire State Building. Her mom was an immigrant, born in northwestern Ireland.

Her father taught her a love of sports, especially baseball and horse racing. Her mother was strict, Michael Barry Sr. said, noting that while that kept Catherine close to home, he, as the eldest of five boys, was usually hanging around in the streets.

"We grew up one block apart, but almost worlds apart," Michael Sr. said of Catherine. " … I didn't know her, really, until we went to that dance and had the accident."

He went to elementary school at PS 189; she went to parochial school at St. Elizabeth's. He went to high school at Bishop Dubois; she went to the Academy of the Sacred Heart of Mary. He rooted for the Giants baseball team, which played at the nearby Polo Grounds.

Her? "Her dad was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan," Michael Sr. said, adding: "He raised her to like baseball, just the wrong team."

Later, after both teams left for the West Coast, Michael Sr. said he and Catherine became loyal Mets fans.

"She was a good boys' mom," Michael Sr. said, noting that his wife didn't just follow sports, she knew them.

Catherine and Michael Sr. also traveled the world, doing frequent "caravan tours" with friends out West, as well as making numerous treks to Ireland and Europe, and visiting Australia and New Zealand. They also took their extended family on a cruise to Bermuda for their 50th anniversary in July 2011.

The irony of it all, Michael Sr. said, was the aftermath of that car accident.

"The insurance company gave everyone $250 each to go away," he said. "And all the other kids, they had to pay their lawyers. Me and Catherine were the only two who didn't sue, so we got to keep all the money, which was a lot in those days."

Catherine Barry was honored with a Mass of Christian Burial on Dec. 7 at Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church and was interred at Nassau Knolls Cemetery in Port Washington.

She is survived by husband Michael Sr. of Port Washington, sons Michael Jr. and wife Theresa of Manhasset, Kevin of Manhattan, and Christopher and wife Christine of Floral Park, as well as grandchildren Michael, Nicholas, Peter, Owen, Griffin, Isaac, Emily and Connor.

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