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Fence friend Mary O'Neill celebrates 100th birthday with 2-year-old bestie by her side

The over-the-fence friendship between Mary and Benjamin has been featured in print and video worldwide.

ROBBINSDALE, Minn. — The adjoining back yards are empty. The usual occupants have plans.

“We're going to go to a party,” Sarah Olson says to her 2-year-old son Benjamin as they walk across the parking lot, hand in hand, toward Faith-Lilac Way Lutheran Church.

Minutes earlier, Mary O’Neill emerged from a friend’s car in front of the church.

She is smiling.   

“I think somebody's having a birthday,” she exclaims.

The celebration in the church basement is for Mary’s 100th. 

She wouldn’t think of marking her special day without her best buddy.

“Hi Benjamin!” Mary says warmly as Benjamin rounds the corner into the church’s gathering space.   

High-fives are exchanged between one friend rocketing into her second century and another barely into his second year.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE 11
Mary O’Neill greets her 2-year-old friend Benjamin Olson with a high five as he arrives at her 100th birthday party.

The story of the friendship between Mary and Benjamin was picked up by print and broadcast outlets around the world after first appearing in July on KARE 11.  

The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC Nightly News and newspapers from Vietnam to Iceland featured it.

“Everyone keeps saying it’s the story they needed right now,” Sarah Olson says. “It’s really fun to see how excited people are about their friendship.”

The bond was born while Mary and Benjamin were sheltering at home during COVID. They met over the fence separating their homes and soon Mary was swatting balls, delivered by Benjamin, with her cane. 

“We call it Cane Ball,” Mary said when KARE 11 first visited their backyards.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE 11
Mary O’Neill plays “Cane Ball” with 2-year-old Benjamin Olson over their backyard fence.

The relationship has only strengthened since.

“Just after the story, he started calling her ‘Mimi,’” Benjamin’s mom says.

When Sarah posted a Facebook note about Mary’s 100th birthday party, 300 cards arrived from 21 states.

Benjamin tagged along as Sarah retrieved them. “We would just go to the post office and he would just love to open it up and see all the cards that we got,” Sarah says.

Credit: Sarah Olson
Benjamin Olson collects birthday cards at the post office mailed from around the country to his friend Mary O’Neill.

Mary’s daughter, Sui Curtis, isn’t surprised people fell in love with the friends separated by 98 years.

“She just keeps touching everybody,” Sui says.

Sui believes the friendship did not happen by accident.

“She was sitting doing nothing and Benjamin was sent to her to make her move and make her go,” Mary’s daughter says.

Benjamin sits next to Mary as a crowd of her family and friends sings Happy Birthday, then applauds the guest of honor.

“Good song!” she says.

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE 11
Mary O’Neill and Benjamin Olson share a playful moment at Mary’s 100th birthday party as Benjamin’s mother looks on.

Mary puts her face in Benjamin’s and feigns surprise. He giggles and sticks out his hand for another high-five.

“I can’t imagine how this all happened,” Mary says of the attention that’s come their way. “I’ve gotten more cards from people I don’t even know.”

On the walls throughout the church basement are snapshots of Mary through the years pasted on poster boards.   

Credit: Chad Nelson, KARE 11
Photos of Mary O’Neill’s life also include a picture of her over-the-fence friendship with 2-year-old Benjamin Olson.

Mary the high school graduate.

Mary the wife and mom.

Mary the grandmother and great grandmother.

And now, one more photo, taken of two friends over a fence.

It represents Mary’s latest role: Benjamin’s best friend.