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World War II veteran Howard O'Neil had to live until the Fourth of July

LARGO — For Howard O'Neil, July 4 outranked even Christmas. Family members wore red, white and blue when they visited him on the holiday at Fairway Village Mobile Home Park, where he had buried a flagpole in several hundred pounds of concrete.

When Glenn Beck railed against big government, he glowered in agreement.

"We all had different opinions about it and with him," said Dianne O'Neil-Naehring, his daughter. "But it was, 'Your country is your country.' "

Mr. O'Neil wore his fervor cheerfully. A favorite aphorism: "Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone."

"I asked him once what it meant," said O'Neil-Naehring, 58. She translates it this way: "Try to always have fun. Laugh as much as you can. Just enjoy life."

Mr. O'Neil grew up in the Bronx and Queens. A childhood knife-tossing accident cost him the sight in his left eye. In 1940, a military vision examiner asked him to cover each eye separately.

Instead, he covered the bad eye twice and passed.

In the Army, he blew up an ammunition dump in Saipan and won a Silver Star. He married and started a family. He delivered milk, then newspapers, then worked for a magazine wholesaler.

"He was just a typical macho type guy," his daughter said. "If he wanted something, he got it no matter what it took."

Forty-four years ago, he stopped drinking. The next year, a work accident dislodged the retina in his good eye.

Then he saw only shadows.

He suffered an acute loss when Elizabeth, his wife of 41 years, died in 1985. He married Mildred in 1986.

Then doctors diagnosed Mr. O'Neil with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He stuck to his routine. Somehow, he rode a bicycle around the mobile home park. He bowled and rode to support group meetings, where he sponsored recovering alcoholics. He even gave directions en route despite not being able to see, said neighbor Joseph Schapiro, 81.

"Then when you told him, 'Hey, Howie, we made the wrong turn,' he'd say, 'What the hell you listen to a blind man for?' " Schapiro said.

Last year, he gave his Silver Star and Purple Heart to a great-grandson in Long Island.

Lately he could not bring himself to watch news of war and he couldn't lower the flag at night.

He decided Glenn Beck's rants had become too extreme.

A hospice nurse told the family he had a few days left. "We prayed that it would come on the Fourth of July," his daughter said.

Mr. O'Neil died at home at 6:15 p.m. July 4. He was 91.

The family watched as a light rain fell moments later, followed by a rainbow.

"Then the fireworks started," his daughter said.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2248.

.BIOGRAPHY

Howard C. O'Neil

Born: Sept. 29, 1919.

Died: July 4, 2011.

Survivors: Wife Mildred; son Dennis O'Neil; daughters Sue Ferrentino and Dianne O'Neil-Naehring; eight grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

World War II veteran Howard O'Neil had to live until the Fourth of July 07/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 14, 2011 10:11pm]
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