So many adventures were witnessed by Hal O’Neill.
Sleeping on duffel bags piled in the back of an Army truck with machine-gun bullets whizzing as the vehicle to the rear burst into flames was one of them. That was in Calvados, France. Gathering with buddies between two burning buildings became a regular sleeping choice, because it offered warmth and the enemies had already gone. Those were just two of O’Neill’s remembrances as a U.S. Army private, chronicled in his Amazon book, “Military Memories of World War II,” which debuted in 2015; chapters recalled his combat experiences, including Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. It also included humor: One soldier kept his love life hopping by writing to three women, “You are my only love.” Daughter Sheila Malia helped organize the book and worked with the publisher; her sister Regina Fisher would read back chapters to her dad.
Most know O’Neill as the ramrod-straight retired Army major who marched in Patchogue’s military events. He arrived early, a compelling figure who stood out with his quiet, dignified presence. O’Neill died in his home after making breakfast on Dec. 27. He was 97.
“He marched as recently as the July 4th parade last year,” said Dave Rogers, VFW Jayne-Lattin Post commander, of O’Neill, a former post commander himself. “In November he went with us to Bayport-Blue Point Middle School to talk. He was very dedicated to the VFW and our mission, and while he wasn’t able to get around and needed people to pick him up for an event or a school talk, for example, he would say, ‘I want to go out and speak with you.’ The kids loved him.” O’Neill was also a known visitor at the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center, seeing fellow soldiers.
O’Neill always carried his unit flag in parades; it weighed about 11 pounds, and the many medals on his uniform hinted at his dedication and bravery with the 83rd Signal Company until the end of the war in Europe. O’Neill served with the 77th Signal Company of the Reserve 77th Infantry Division from 1951 to 1965.
But, from what colleagues and family have said, his entire life was approached with a patina of honor.
Going forward with the military skills learned, setting goals and sticking to them, he earned his master’s, then doctorate, degrees in Economics and History at New York University at night while working at Bell Labs in Manhattan when the family lived in Flushing, Queens. O’Neill and his wife, Veronica, moved in 1968 to Patchogue, where he was already working for Suffolk County Community College and eventually became department head and division chair. He told the Advance in an earlier story about regularly taking a class or two himself. Curiosity was his middle name.
A Faculty Association plaque for dedicated service from SCCC and three Man of the Year awards from the VFW Jayne-Lattin Post 2913 were just a few of the many medals, honors and proclamations honoring the benchmarks of his life on his walls at home on Rider Avenue.
As for his daily routine, Malia pointed out, “(O’Neill) had a sense of curiosity in life that spanned into his 90s, and it was important to want to learn.” Even when he was diagnosed with macular degeneration, which ultimately shortened his daily walks, his reaction was, “I think this is a good time to learn Spanish,” which he could by listening to tapes, she said.
Fisher pointed out when O’Neill was pursuing his Ph.D. and commuted from Queens to the SCCC position before the Patchogue move, there was still time for his 10 kids. “He was always there to help us learn to ride a bike or music; it was amazing how he fit it all in,” Fisher said. “And, once a week, he went upstate to see his mother. He would alternately take two children at a time.” It was also an era when families did everything out of economic necessity; men would fix the family car, plumbing and electrical dilemmas, and women did too. O’Neill even invited a son up onto the household roof for repairs as part of a problem-solving lesson.
“It was ‘Go live life,’” said Fisher. “And ‘What can I do for others?’”
“He would encourage us to climb trees,” added Malia, relating that while she wasn’t the sturdiest child, her father incurred in her a belief that she could do anything she tried.
The two siblings joked that their mother, Veronica, said a man with 10 children needed a place to go. And that was the VFW in Patchogue; he’d take a couple of his offspring with him whenever he went. It was a good way to learn about service to the community.
Stories would pop up in his head when he took his Patchogue walks, and after returning home, he’d refine them for his grandchildren, who lived across the United States. They came in the form of one-hour tapes to each grandchild (there were 19), with personalized fairy tales of cats, horses and the solar system that also included history and geography.
It was an extension of what he did at the dinner table, his daughters said. “He would play history games,” recalled Malia. “It was a delightful way of learning. It made me have an eye for the wonders of the world.”
Malia paused, saying of his legacy, “That’s what he gave his children.”