The greatest stuntwoman in history, Kitty O'Neil, died last week at age 72. That caught my eye, not only because we shared the same last name, but because the place of her demise was Eureka, South Dakota.
In addition to being acknowledged as the greatest stuntwoman, Kitty also holds the world land speed record for women of nearly 513 mph. She had her own Mattel action figure and a biopic movie. Stockard Channing played her in the movie, but she did her own stunts. She overcame much adversity in her life, including deafness from a childhood illness, meningitis which ended a promising Olympic diving career, a couple bouts of cancer, and various injuries from her risky profession. She retired from that lifestyle in 1982, and in 1993 moved to Eureka. She was a native Texan, but apparently she moved there with a fellow named Ray Wald who had some ties to the area.
[In a side note, South Dakota native Jessi Combs (Rapid City), has tried to put together an attempt to break the land speed record, which Kitty set in a three-wheel vehicle. Combs already holds the women's record for a four-wheel vehicle, 399 mph. Combs is best known, at least to me, for one season on Mythbusters while Kari Byron was on maternity leave. Kitty publicly supported Jessi's plans.]
Some of the news coverage of Kitty's passing included bewilderment how a famous Hollywood figure could end up in a tiny little town deep in flyover country. According to the Hollywood Reporter, "I got tired of living in L.A.," she said. "I don't like the big city, too many people. So I moved here and fell in love with it. The people are so friendly."
According to the Washington Post, “How and why they (her and Wald) settled in Eureka probably still has a lot of people scratching their heads and a bit baffled,” said Barry Lapp, president of the Eureka Pioneer Museum, which features an exhibit on Ms. O’Neil’s life.
In my former life as a bank examiner, I never went to Eureka per se, but drove just south of there heading to towns further west such as McLaughlin. My understanding is Eureka is a nice little town, maybe even an oasis in the vast expanse of prairie, but it is only 868 people. Aberdeen, population 28,000, is 73 miles away. In McLaughlin, which is near the Missouri River, we asked a single 20-something junior bank officer what he did for fun. He thought about it for a while before responding, "It helps if you like fishing."
When I retired and moved from Massachusetts back to South Dakota, my co-workers thought I was going to the wild frontier. And I'm in a city that has a Costco and Paul McCartney concerts. Eureka is 280 miles deeper into the wilderness. For the last 25 years of her life, Kitty had the blue skies of uncrowded Eureka rather than LA's congestion and brown smog cloud, but I'm sure the writer for the Hollywood Reporter still doesn't get it.