Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Epilogue | Evelyn O'Neal

Evelyn O'Neal embodied rigor, style of a bygone era

TAMPA — Half of the University of South Florida's first graduating class died Tuesday. Evelyn O'Neal, who was 91, graduated in 1962, two years after the school opened. The only other student in that class, Lucas King, died years ago.

Both Mrs. O'Neal and King were teachers who had previously earned two-year degrees and gone back to school.

Mrs. O'Neal was a grand Southern lady remembered for a style that may be fading away — rigorous courtesy, social grace and discipline.

She engaged interlocutors fully, as if opening pleasantries were just the first stage to some meaningful change in the other person. She ordered books by the half-dozen, often by politically conservative authors she had seen on Fox News.

"I think you would really like this book," she would say as she gave a book away.

She grew up in East Tampa, the daughter of a cattle rancher. At age 6, she hopped in a car and took her cousin for a spin, a tale that surprises no one. She met James O'Neal at Hillsborough High School, where both were voted "Best Looking" in their senior year.

The high school sweethearts married in 1941. By then Mrs. O'Neal had a two-year degree from Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University) and had been teaching English for three years. She quit in 1943 with the birth of her daughter Susan.

But Mrs. O'Neal never really left teaching, especially when it came to grammar or table manners.

"'You lay a book down, you lie down," mimicked her daughter, Susan Salzer, 65.

"There was a way you talked to people, there was a way you didn't talk to people," said grandson Bill Long III, 27. "She always wanted you to step forward and introduce yourself. Put your hand out there, stand up straight. Don't mumble, speak up. Look at people when you talk."

She was a full-time mom for 17 years, but one with unfinished business. "I had always wanted the other two years of my degree," she said in the late 1980s. "Just about the time when my baby was going to first grade, USF opened up."

After graduation, Mrs. O'Neal joined the staff at Coleman Junior High, where she taught the next 18 years. She taught Shakespeare and The Count of Monte Cristo, making friends with her students even as she kept them in line.

"She cared about us so much and we loved her so much, we wanted to know whatever she wanted us to learn," former student Craig Colbert wrote in an e-mail to the family.

In the bitter teachers' strike of 1968, Mrs. O'Neal was one of the few who crossed the picket line. She was putting students first, she said, and was willing to endure ostracism when her colleagues returned to work.

"I do remember some of the other teachers were a bit icy after that," said daughter Jamie Levin, 56.

Mrs. O'Neal lived a rich social life, however, and was active in everything from the Tampa Yacht & Country Club to the board of the Curtis Hixon Convention Center, on the committee that ushered in the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

Despite her steel-magnolia exterior, Mrs. O'Neal found herself adrift six years ago after her husband, James, who had owned several furniture stores, died of lung cancer.

Tasks he had always performed, from paying bills to putting gas in her Cadillac, fell to her. She once called her daughter Patricia from a gas station to be talked through using a self-service pump.

As congestive heart failure worsened over the last year, Mrs. O'Neal seemed to be paring down. She gave up driving several months ago. A month ago, she stopped playing bridge. At the rehabilitation center in recent weeks, the lifelong reader told her family not to bring in the whole paper anymore.

"Just the crossword puzzle."

Mrs. O'Neal leaves behind a tangible legacy, one she created years ago with Lucas King, her former classmate. The King-O'Neal Scholars award goes to USF students who complete their coursework with a 4.0 grade point average. The university still gives out the award each year at graduation.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or [email protected]

. Biography

Evelyn Lightsey O'Neal

Born: Feb. 6, 1918.

Died: Nov. 3, 2009.

Survivors: Daughters, Susan Salzer and her husband, Bill, Patricia Long and her husband, Bill, Jamie Levin and her husband George; seven grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

Evelyn O'Neal embodied rigor, style of a bygone era 11/07/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 9:12pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Pasco delays Irma food distribution after problems elsewhere

    Local Government

    DADE CITY — Pasco County has pulled the plug on a planned Food for Florida distribution at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Center that had been scheduled to open to the public on Sunday.

    Pasco County has postponed a planned Food for Florida distribution at the Land O' Lakes Recreation Center on Collier Parkway and is seeking an alternative site. Last week, commissioners said they feared a repeat of the long lines of traffic that appeared outside Plant City Stadium on Oct. 9. The nutrition program for people affected by Hurricane Irma had been scheduled to come to Land O' Lakes Oct. 18 to 27.  [LOREN ELLIOTT   |   Times]
  2. Editorial: UF can set example for free speech


    White nationalist Richard Spencer is bringing his racist message Thursday to the University of Florida in a legitimate, if utterly repugnant, display of the First Amendment at work. As a public university, UF has little choice but to allow Spencer's speech to take place. Now the university and the broader community has …

    By responding with peaceful protests and refusing to be provoked into violence, UF and the Gainesville community can provide a powerful repudiation of Richard Spencer’s hateful message.
  3. Percussionist rocks out with a blazing triangle solo during Florida Orchestra performance


    Oh, the poor triangle. It's the orchestra equivalent of a rock band's tamborine, and such easy fodder for jokes.

    John Shaw performs a triangle solo.
  4. Amazon expands in Tampa with Pop-Up shop in International Plaza


    TAMPA — A new retailer known largely for its online presence has popped up at International Plaza and Bay Street.

    Shoppers walk past the new Amazon kiosk Tuesday at the International Plaza in Tampa. The kiosk, which opened last month, offers shoppers an opportunity to touch and play with some of the products that Amazon offers.
[CHRIS URSO   |   Times]

  5. Andy Serkis' directing debut 'Breathe' is not so inspiring


    After such a revolutionary acting career, Andy Serkis should be expected to make an equally inventive directing debut. Breathe is anything but that.

    Clare Foy and Andrew Garfield star in Breathe as Robin and Diana Cavendish, an English polio victim and his devoted wife, who pioneered disability rights and wheelchairs with ventilators. [Imaginarium]