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Barbara A. O’Malley, mother of a Maryland governor and a Capitol Hill institution fondly called ‘Mrs. O,’ dies at 93

Gov. Martin O'Malley's mother, Barbara A. O'Malley, stands during the introductions of distinguished guests as he delivers his last State of the State Address.
Gov. Martin O'Malley's mother, Barbara A. O'Malley, stands during the introductions of distinguished guests as he delivers his last State of the State Address. (By Paul W. Gillespie, Staff/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Barbara A. O’Malley, mother of the former governor of Maryland and a beloved Capitol Hill institution known as “Mrs. O” during her more than three-decade career as a member of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski’s staff, died Wednesday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. The former longtime Rockville resident was 93.

“She died from complications of old age,” said former governor Martin J. O’Malley. “I was glad that she didn’t live to see her beloved Capitol stormed, a place she loved so dearly. She also wanted to live long enough so that she could vote for Biden and see Trump defeated, and she was able to do that.”

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“Mrs. O was a beloved member of the Mikulski team and became quite an institution,” Senator Mikulski said. “She stayed with me my entire 30 years and was at that front desk where she trained legions of staffers on how to treat constituents. She was welcoming and made sure constituents got connected to the right staffer. She was gifted at that. ‘Good morning, how can I help you?’ That was Mrs. O.”

While constituents waited, it was Mrs. O’Malley who offered them Girl Scout cookies that Senator Mikulski, a Girl Scouts supporter, had purchased.

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The former Barbara Ann Suelzer, the daughter of Joseph Suelzer, who sold insurance, and his wife, Martha Dix Suelzer, was born and raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she graduated from Central Catholic High School.

Mrs. O’Malley’s indoctrination into Democratic Party politics began early in her life as her father, a World War I veteran, served as Allen County chair of the Democratic Party, and when he died of lung cancer, “even the Republican newspaper said nice things about him,” said Governor O’Malley, a Baltimore resident.

She worked in a local congressional campaign before she was able to vote, and her personal political heroes were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Adlai Stevenson.

During World War II, during her senior year in high school, she wrote her father a letter informing him that she wanted to take flying lessons, and he replied, “No.”

“My mother intercepted his letter and talked him into it. I got $100 for graduation and it went into flying lessons,” Mrs. O’Malley told The Sun in a 2000 interview. She earned her pilot’s license in 1946, and it turned out her first passenger was her father, who said after she made a turn, “That’s enough of that.”

After graduating from high school, she took a $15-a-week job working the counter at Intercity Flying Service in Indiana just to be around airplanes.

After her father’s death, she moved back home to Fort Wayne. “I didn’t fly much after that. I thought my mother would worry,” she explained in the interview.

She went to Washington and worked for Rep. Edward Kruse, and when he was not reelected in 1950, she went back home again and went to work in his law office.

In the mid-1950s, she became a national committeewoman for the Young Democrats and while working at the Young Democrats headquarters in Washington, she met and fell in love with a young Georgetown University Law School graduate, Thomas Martin O’Malley, whom she married in 1954.

“They literally met at the Young Democrats headquarters where they were splicing together a newsletter,” Governor O’Malley said.

The couple settled into a home in Bethesda and later moved to Rockville, where she spent the next 33 years as a stay-at-home mother raising the couple’s six children.

In 1986, when Governor O’Malley was field director for Senator Mikulski’s campaign, he informed his mother that there was an opening in the newly elected senator’s office for a receptionist.

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“It didn’t take much urging,” Mrs. O’Malley told The Wall Street Journal in a 2015 interview. “I thought, ‘Yay — a woman senator!’ At the time there were only two.”

From the first day on the job until the last, Mrs. O’Malley’s philosophy remained unchanged: “Just be as nice as you can and gracious, as she [Senator Mikulski] would want us to be.”

“She was a strong Democrat and was a supporter of more women in politics,” Senator Mikulski said. “She was a valuable member of our team, and she knew everyone in Rockville and Montgomery County.”

During her career with the senator, Mrs. O’Malley, an American history buff, became intimately knowledgeable about the nuances and history of the Capitol.

Barbara A. O'Malley, pictured in May 2000, "was a strong Democrat and was a supporter of more women in politics,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski said.
Barbara A. O'Malley, pictured in May 2000, "was a strong Democrat and was a supporter of more women in politics,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski said. (BARBARA HADDOCK TAYLOR / XX)

“She had a great love of history, and she knew the history of the Capitol,” Senator Mikulski said. “She knew every nook and cranny, even the basement, and when school groups came to the Capitol it was Mrs. O who led the tour.”

Mrs. O’Malley became quite the figure in the Hart Senate Office Building, where from her fifth-floor office she forged strong friendships with both Democratic and Republican senators.

“She also developed relationships with other staffers and loved playing poker — and became a legend for her skill at the game — with the senators, and loved telling them, ‘I have five queens,’ ” said Senator Mikulski, with a laugh.

Former Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, made sure he visited Mrs. O’Malley every day when he was in Washington.

“She’s so funny — and she’s tough,” Senator Rockefeller told The Wall Street Journal. “When she thinks the conversation has gone on too long, she goes, ‘Go to your office and do some work.’ ”

An expert baker, Mrs. O’Malley brought her handiwork, especially brownies and almond cookies, into the senator’s office, and it fell to her to organize the office’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.

“Mrs. O brought a sense of camaraderie to the staff,” Senator Mikulski recalled. “When I walked in, she was the first person I’d see in the morning, and I’d ask, ‘What’s happening?’ and she’d say, ‘Let me tell you.’ She was my first briefing of the day.”

Mrs. O’Malley also shared her love of history with her children and offered valuable advice.

‘‘She’d say, ‘Treat every person you meet as if they were the most important person in the world.’ It made no difference if you were a prince or pauper in her eyes. She taught us many things like saying a Hail Mary when you saw an ambulance that was speeding to save someone’s life,” Governor O’Malley said.

Mrs. O’Malley retired when Senator Mikulski retired at the conclusion of her five terms in the Senate.

Her love of history and aviation led to a second career as a longtime docent at the Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Her personal aviation hero was Amelia Earhart, and when the Civil Aviation Patrol celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2016, Mrs. O’Malley attended the event, at which she and retired Army Gen. Julius Becton were presented replicas of the Congressional Gold Medal for volunteer service during World War II.

She was a deeply religious woman, and it wasn’t uncommon for Mrs. O’Malley to slip out and attend 8 a.m. Mass at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church with the senator’s chief of staff, Shannon Kula.

“She did that regularly,” her son said.

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Mrs. O’Malley was a longtime communicant of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church in Rockville, and after moving to Mercy Ridge Retirement Community in Timonium attended Mass there.

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She enjoyed being the doting grandmother and assembling photo albums that chronicled the life of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

A funeral Mass for Barbara A. O’Malley, who died Jan. 6 at 93, will be offered at 10 a.m. Thursday at the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, 5200 N. Charles St. The Mass will also be livestreamed at www.cathedralofmary.org/webcast.

Mrs. O’Malley will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

In addition to Governor O’Malley, she is survived by three other sons, Patrick O’Malley, Peter O’Malley and Paul O’Malley, all of Baltimore; two daughters, Bridget Hunter of Falls Church, Virginia, and Eileen Schempp of Rockville; 15 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

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