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Mary O’Neill — 99-year-old who formed a friendship over a fence with her 2-year-old neighbor — has died

Benjamin Olson and Mary O'Neill formed a friendship that helped them both through the pandemic.


2023 UPDATE:

Mary O’Neill, who gained national fame for a friendship with her 2-year-old neighbor over a Minneapolis backyard fence, has died at the age of 101.

Both were isolated during COVID, when Mary and her toddler next-door neighbor Benjamin Olson started making up games over their fence to pass the time. Their story was shared first on KARE 11, followed by a national broadcast on NBC Nightly News.

A family member tells KARE 11, Mary passed away peacefully on June 30 after a recent decline in her health.

Here’s the original story from July of 2021 about fence friends, Mary and Benjamin.


Two houses, separated by a fence.

In one, Benjamin Olson just turned 2.

In the other, Mary O'Neill is just shy of 100.

For more than a year, both found themselves pandemic prisoners.

“A lot of just us in this house,” Sarah Olson, Benjamin’s mother, says. “He has never really had any other friends.”

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
2-year-old Benjamin Olson spent the pandemic at home with his family.

Mary, meantime, spent her stay-at-home days watching TV game shows and playing Yahtzee on a handheld electronic game.

“I'm playing against myself,” Mary says.  

All that changed when Mary and Benjamin found each other.

“Hi Benjamin,” Mary says, smiling and waving, as her 2-year-old neighbor toddles down his back steps.

He kicks her a ball.

She lifts her cane over the fence and bats it back.

“Here it comes,” Mary says enthusiastically as Benjamin chases down the ball to restart the game.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
Benjamin Olson and Mary O’Neill play a game they call cane ball.

“We call it cane ball,” Mary says.

Stuck at home, Benjamin’s mom watched from across the yard as the friendship blossomed.

“His first best friend,” Sarah says.

Benjamin points his stomp rocket across the fence.

“Go!” Mary shouts.

Benjamin slams down his foot and the rocket sales over a giggling Mary’s head.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE
Benjamin Olson prepares to shoot his stomp rocket into Mary O’Neill’s yard.

Minutes later, Benjamin is blowing bubbles as Mary cheers him on from across the fence.

“Bubbles, bubbles,” she says.

“Mary said that she had these trucks for Benjamin,” Sarah says.

Before Sarah knew it, Mary had emerged with a laundry basket filled with old metal Tonka trucks.

“My son's,” Mary says. “He passed away, so they've been sitting down in the basement for years and years.”

Mary also lost her husband, 37 years ago.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE

Her grandchildren and great grandchildren, whose pictures grace her walls, all live out of state.

But new photos of Benjamin and his baby brother, Noah, also now occupy prime real estate on Mary’s dining room table.

“They're the closest thing to grandchildren I have around here,” Mary says.

And as the pandemic eased its grip, Benjamin learned to open the gate separating him from Mary.

Now he knows the grass is even greener when you can share a friendship on the same side of the fence.

“Oh boy, I'm going to get some dirt,” Mary says as Benjamin approaches with clenched fists.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE

“Thank you,” Mary says, as the dusty contents of Benjamin's hands is transferred to hers.

“Oh, that's nice dirt,” she tells her 2-year-old friend. 

Days passed during the year when their yards remained empty.

“I missed them, missed seeing them,” Mary says, “when it was too cold for them to come out, when it was raining.”

Listening nearby, Benjamin’s mom wipes away a tear.

“I had never known that,” Sarah says. “I'm so happy they have each other.”

When friendships form, powerful forces are engineered. Look no further than Benjamin and Mary who've built a bridge over 98 years.

Credit: Sarah Olson
Two-year-old Benjamin Olson and 99-year-old Mary O'Neill have formed a friendship over a backyard fence

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