Holy Acrophobia! the O'neil Clan Is Tops in Steeplejacking

updated 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Here's the church, and here's the steeple, and crawling all over it are the Steeple People. No, this is not a music group looking for an angle to sell a record, but the high-climbing O'Neil family: Jerry, 58, wife Beverly, 56, their sons, Darrell, 35, and Tim, 30, and the sons' wives, Judy, 32, and Linda, 27. The O'Neils practice a vanishing trade, steeplejacking (as here at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta). And though the numbers in their vocation may be dwindling, the O'Neils are booked well ahead. "We install lightning rods and gold-leaf crosses and reinforce metal and wood," Jerry explains. "We do interior and exterior painting and caulking, waterproofing, repair slate roofing and restore stained glass." Once, he recalls, "We took a hypodermic needle and replaced the glue in squeaky pews." More remarkably, they do it en famille, traveling in three motor homes. Their work has taken them to some 90 churches in 11 states—and once, on the steeple of the Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, to the scarifying height of 227 feet. "It's not a job, it's a profession," says Jerry. "We like to go to new towns and make new friends." The work does have its drawbacks. Jerry knows firsthand that bats in the belfry are no myth; at St. Valentine's Church in Beaver, Mich., one of them nipped his neck. In Tennessee, an undertaker was so alarmed at the precarious nature of their work that he suggested measuring them for coffins. The O'Neils do without costly scaffolding, preferring to work on wooden chairs hoisted and lowered by cables. But they do not rely on grace alone for their safety. "You don't jump around in the chairs," notes Jerry, and you brake for lightning. "When we see a storm coming, we get down immediately." None of the O'Neils has ever been hurt in the line of duty. "The only thing we've ever broken is our fingernails," says Beverly, knocking wood.

Jerry, who grew up in Bay City, Mich., learned the trade from his father, and in 1975, after a career as a painter with Dow Chemical, he turned part-time steeplejacking into a full-time job. He and Beverly, whom he married in 1947, taught their sons the business, and they taught their wives. Linda and Judy see nothing odd about women steeplejacks. "My father's very proud of me," says Linda.

The work is, of course, part calling. "I love the Lord, and all I want to do is work on His houses," says Jerry, whose family are all members of Bay City's First Church of the Nazarene. "I am traveling by faith, and I give God the credit for it." Still, when it comes to heights, the O'Neils will stick to steeples, thank you. Glancing toward parachute drops and roller coasters at the Six Flags amusement park near their campground, son Tim just shakes his head. "I wouldn't get on one of those things for anything." Concurs Jerry, "Neither would I. I don't trust other people's work."

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