He was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a Rhodes Scholar, and President of the University of Virginia before beginning two decades of work in defense of the First Amendment.
Now, Bob O’Neil has retired, and Charlottesville is planning a unique event to say thanks. Bob O’Neil grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of a faculty member at Harvard. He got undergraduate and law degrees there, before taking academic jobs in California, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and the University of Virginia, where he served as president.
His assistant, Sandy Gillem, remembers the day O’Neil was officially selected. “There’s a secret organization at the university called the Society of the Purple Shadows. It’s a benevolent group. They will appear at some gathering, dressed in purple robes with a mask or a veil, and they will extend silently whatever it is they’re bringing, and I remember the day that the board elected Bob O’Neil as president. Bob was in the middle of his remarks when the shadows appeared, and what they were doing was bringing him a letter welcoming him to the university, but I can remember the expression on their faces for the rest of my life. They had never lived in the South before, and they thought, My Lord! The Klan has arrived!”
The O’Neils soon discovered that Charlottesville was a civilized place, and Bob made friends quickly. “He could be reserved. Karen, his wife, on the other hand, could talk to a stone wall, so they were an awfully good pair. They entertained constantly.”
After five years in office, O’Neil stepped down to start the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, a group that would offer assistance to people fighting legal battles on First Amendment grounds. His second in command was Josh Wheeler, a UVA Law School graduate who had studied under O’Neil.
“After I’d been working at the center for a while, I created a little game for myself that I called ‘Stump the Bob,’ and the purpose of the game was to find a First Amendment case that he did not know about, and I would work it into the conversation. I gave up after about six months, because not only did he always know the case, he went on to tell me additional facts about the case that were not reported that he somehow knew about,” said Wheeler.
O’Neil was also generous. Wheeler says he rarely turned down a request to speak, and John Whitehead, who founded another not-for-profit to protect civil liberties said his counterpart was happy to share expertise. “He clerked for William Brennan on the Supreme Court, so he understands how the Supreme Court thinks, and what was good about Bob, when I’d call and say, ‘Can you help me with this?’ I’d get an e-mail back. I knew Bob was going to do his best to help.”
But after 20 years at the center, O’Neil was ready to retire. Colleagues at the Jefferson Center, the University of Virginia Law School and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government thought this a very good time to pay tribute to O’Neil, with a reception and dinner hosted by comedian Chris Bliss, and at least one VIP seated at every table. The guest list includes broadcasters Ken Rudin, Ann Compton and Bob Edwards, writers Rita Mae Brown and Rita Dove, actress Sissy Spacek , two former governors of the state and many more. Tickets are now on sale for the tribute to Bob O’Neil, set for October 29th at the University of Virginia Law School.
-by Sandy Hausman