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]