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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006 05:12 pm

To persevere

Despite disability and misfortune, Pat O'Neill became a role model for his community

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Pat O'Neill: "I believe I'm a very lucky person."
PHOTO BY GINNY LEE

To pursue advanced business courses at Lincoln High School, freshman Pat O’Neill first needed to complete the marketing requirement. He signed up and was put in a class with mainly older students — most of them girls.

His classroom work that semester was fine, but the final exam for the course consisted of a 40-minute oral presentation.

Pat was big and strong, and this had allowed him to develop a certain confidence on the football field, but in the classroom? He had a cleft palate, and most of his corrective surgery was still ahead of him. The facial disfigurement and speech impediment were pronounced. He had not yet come to terms with all the teasing at his new school. The presentation weighed on him heavily.

Larry Nelson, Pat’s marketing teacher, approached him for a private talk:

“I’ve spoken with your other teachers, and I know you don’t like to participate in oral presentations. If you’d prefer to turn in a written report, I’d be willing to grade you based on that.”

Pat nodded gratefully.

Nelson wasn’t done with him, though.

“That was me talking to you as a teacher,” he said. “Now I want to talk to you as a friend. My advice to you is that you stand up and give your report just like the rest of the class. You’ll do fine, and it will be the best thing for you in the long run.”

Pat told his teacher he would give the presentation.

“You’ve made one of the best decisions of your life,” Nelson replied, then patted Pat on the shoulder and left.

More than 30 years later, Pat still has a vivid memory of that conversation.

“At the time I didn’t know what he meant, but he was absolutely right. After that speech, my self-esteem and confidence shot through the roof, and I haven’t shut up since.”

It is with recollections such as this one that Pat O’Neill, a member of the Logan County Board, recounts his early life: stories of exceptional people who stepped in at crucial times and taught him lessons he took to heart and still relies on today.

His story is worth a look. Despite disability and misfortune that might easily have left him embittered, the 50-year-old has persevered and contributed significantly to his community. What’s more, he’s done so with a smile on his somewhat rough-looking face.

“I believe I’m a very lucky person. I have a roof over my head, a family, a community I love. All this would not be possible if not for the positive role models in my life: Larry Nelson, my [high-school football] coach Ron Ross, and, of course, my father, who was my best friend.”

His father, Charles Leo O’Neill, was a World War II corpsman who came home with two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He was working at the Ball-InCon plant in Lincoln when his wife, Violet Mae, gave birth in October 1955.

Pat, the couple’s first child, was born with a cleft palate, a birth defect in which the roof of the mouth does not fuse shut during fetal development. In his case, the condition was severe enough that he was born unable to breathe, and his chest had to be opened to save his life. The young parents were told that their son faced a youth riddled with surgeries.

“That was rough for them,” Pat says, “but a hospital physician took them on a tour through a ward of disabled children and showed them that I was not as bad off as a lot of kids. That helped them cope. They made the decision not to shelter me from the public in any way.”

Cleft palate is the most common of birth defects, but that doesn’t account for what happened to the O’Neill family. In a medical rarity, all three children — Pat and his two younger brothers, Mike and Kevin — had the condition. Ultimately it was determined that their mother’s blood-pressure medicine had been responsible.

Kevin, the youngest of the three, died before his first birthday. Pat was 7 at the time, Mike just four. A devout Catholic, their mother consoled her remaining children with the belief that God would find another member of the family to rear their brother in heaven.

It was five years later that her health problems caused Mrs. O’Neill to suffer a seizure while she alone at home with her children. Pat did what he could for her, working to keep her from choking on her tongue and calling for help. He and his brother were whisked out of the house by relatives and not brought back until 3 a.m.

There were family cars all around the house. Pat’s father took the two boys into the bedroom. He reminded them of their mother’s conviction that God would provide for their lost brother. “The Lord came and took your mother to be with Kevin tonight,” he told them. She had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.

Charles O’Neill was left with two disabled children to rear on his own. He could not afford the costly operations that Pat and Mike were going to require. Their medical care was provided for by the state of Illinois, through the Division of Specialized Care for Children (then known as the Division of Services for Crippled Children).

Still, the greatest challenges were borne by the single father. The physicians told him what the children needed, and he provided it with no complaints. Pat sees his own positive outlook despite many challenges as a legacy from his father: “He was strong for me, and that lets me be strong for others.”

Pat’s brother Mike concurs. Mike has also done well for himself. A prison guard for the last 17 years and currently the union vice president at Logan Correctional Center, he has a wife and three children. A semipro bowler, he will soon share a spot on the wall of fame at Logan Lanes with his father, who served there as a bowling coach for years. “Dad was a different breed — the greatest guy,” he says. “He gave up all his vacation time for our surgeries.”

In the seventh grade, Pat recognized that he was growing bigger and stronger than the other kids. He embraced that in a healthy way, turning to sports. Falling in love with football, he lettered as a freshman under the tutelage of another man he credits with helping him achieve: coach Ron Ross.

“He kicked my butt,” Pat recalls. “I asked him once why he was so hard on me, why he didn’t like me. ‘I do like you, Pat,’ he said. ‘Football is a rough game. Life itself is rough. I’m trying to toughen you up.’ ”

Late in his junior year, however, the young man who was on course for a football scholarship saw that hope taken away. At the homecoming game that year, he took a hit from a running back that bent him backward, damaging his spine to the point that he did not fully recover for years. His football letter his senior year would be an honorary one. He did not get to attend college.

At the same time Pat’s back was being treated, it was time for the remaining surgeries on his face, and they were intensive. Cleft palate is not a condition for sissies. Between his junior and senior years, Pat was hospitalized at St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, where fragments were taken from his hip to help rebuild his jaw. He was in intensive care for five days and for weeks had to eat through a straw. Mike was going through a similar trial. Charles O’Neill learned how to use a blender.

Pat went to work after high school. He performed well but was laid off from two jobs as a result of cutbacks. When he was offered a part-time position at Kroger, in Lincoln, he asked at the outset whether the company laid people off. He was told no: “People need to eat. No matter what the economy does, they still need food.”

No layoffs, but the position was part-time, as a bagger, and they did want him to cut his hair, which, at the time, was down past his shoulders. Also, he would be on probation for 30 days.

Pat worked as he’d seen his father work. “I took every hour they offered me for that 30 days. I walked the mile and a half to work and never missed a day.” When his probation period was over, the manager called him upstairs and made him full-time. Pat became a familiar face at the grocery store for hundreds of customers. His career with Kroger would last 29 years.

In May 1994, Pat fell seriously ill. A minor cut to his foot turned septic, and he was hospitalized, on the verge of losing his leg. For several weeks he was inactive. Finally he was released. To celebrate, he went with friends to a ’50s and ’60s bar in Springfield, Rockin’ Robin, where a young lady caught his eye from across the room.

He didn’t get to speak with her, but they did meet. Her name was Juanita. He thought that he might try to get acquainted another time.

Pat didn’t get back to the bar for a while, though. He’d overdone it with his leg and had a relapse. Soon he was back to square one, with the very real fear that he might lose the leg.

He credits the prayers of his family with pulling him through that event — a niece, Erica, just 7 at the time, insisted on saying the rosary for him continually while he was hospitalized. His leg quickly regained its blood flow and strength. Pat came through the ordeal with a newfound sense of his own mortality. He started to have thoughts about settling down.

He returned to the Rockin’ Robin, and this time he went prepared. He’d written a poem and purchased a blue rose.

Juanita was from Decatur, and Pat was from Lincoln. He started courting her outright. “I was very shy and down on men because of bad experiences,” Juanita says. “Pat brought me out of that.”

Their first date was a movie, after which they talked until 5 a.m. “He gave me his number, but when I went to call him I couldn’t read it,” Juanita recalls.

Still, they did get together. Before long, Pat experienced something in the relationship that gave him a sense of déjà vu: Juanita had a grand mal seizure in his presence. As a child, she had gotten in the middle of a fight between her parents and was hit in the head. She has epilepsy as a result.

When Juanita regained her senses, she was surprised to see that Pat was still around.

“Any boyfriend I’d ever had, they’d see me go through that and they’d be gone,” she says.

Pat was not fazed by her condition: “If you’re going to wait for someone perfect, you won’t find them. I take people as they come.”

On Oct. 10, 1994, the couple flew to Las Vegas and married. They don’t have children together, but Juanita came with four kids, so Pat got the family he wanted. They now have grandchildren.

It was after the couple moved into their current home, on State Street, that Pat entered politics. Property-tax issues brought him to the circuit clerk’s office. He filed a grievance and was told he’d be called in for a hearing. Some time later he received a notice indicating that he’d been denied — no hearing. When he went back to complain, he heard the offhand comment “If you don’t like it, you should run for office.”

He asked what the process was.

“Get a petition, go door to door for signatures.”

Pat developed a platform and was put on the ballot.

At his first debate he was surprised at the number of people present. Lisa Madigan, then a state senator, was there, and after the debate she came to speak to him. “If you lose this election, I hope you consider running again,” she told him. “You have a good message. But in the future, instead of reading from your notes, you should just speak from your heart.”

Pat lost that race by a wide margin, but he was emboldened by the senator’s encouragement. He did learn to speak from his heart, and in December 2001, on his third attempt, Pat joined the Logan County Board.

A modest grocery-store clerk might be expected not to make waves in politics, but his tenure was not to be a quiet one. Because of his love of animals, he was given oversight of Logan County Animal Control, an agency that at the time was operating under a cloud.

Dr. David Hepler, a chiropractor in Lincoln, served on the animal-control committee. “Dale Voyles was the County Board chairman at the time,” Hepler says. “He had the vision to assign Pat — a new member — to that challenging assignment. Pat took what had always been a part-time job and turned it into an involved position.”

After reviewing the shelter’s record, Pat pushed for a new director and ultimately oversaw a complete change of staff. And he continued his work on behalf of animals by starting a chapter of the Humane Society in Lincoln that still flourishes.

His greatest passion, though, is not animals but kids. Pat has hosted and helped fund several “town meetings” for teens — opportunities for community youth to come together and have their say. Pat’s brother Mike reflects on his brother’s commitment to young people: “We didn’t have summer vacations when we were growing up; that’s when we went in for the surgeries. We missed out on a lot of the fun things. I think that’s where he gets his concern for the kids.”

When Pat looks back at his accomplishments, it isn’t the highly publicized animal-control issue that stirs his pride. It’s the memory of a young man who approached him on the street one day. “ ‘You don’t know me,’ the young man said, ‘but I almost dropped out of high school a couple years ago. One of my teachers talked to me out of it, and he used you as an example — everything you went through and didn’t give up.’ ” The boy had just finished his first year of college.

In 2004, Charles O’Neill died. Pat honors his father by trying to be what he was — an encouragement to others: “We’re all role models, whether we want to be or not. There’s always someone watching. I want to be someone who steps up to that.”

Pat recently retired from his job at Kroger because of arthritis. In a few days, he begins a new job: driving a bus for Lincoln High School. He looks forward to the opportunity to work with teens and hopes that it will keep him in touch with the younger members of the community as he heads into his sixth year on the Logan County Board.

Pat sums up his commitment to encourage others this way:

“What’s it all about? It’s not about money. All the money there is won’t make you happy. Me, when I’m crippled up in a nursing home, I’ll think back to that boy who went on to college because of me, and I’ll be happy.”

No doubt he’ll still be smiling.

Lawrence Crossett is a freelance writer in Mason City.

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