In memoriam: Dr. Robert O’Neil

Robert O'Neil

By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English

Dr. Robert O’Neil, a Fresno State professor emeritus of English, passed away Oct. 22. He was 93.

A specialist in English education, O’Neil played a key role in the contemporary development of the English Department’s teaching credential program for secondary school teachers, supervising student teachers at area middle schools and high schools. He also taught courses in literature and composition at Fresno State, from 1957-1992.

According to Dr. John R. Hales, professor of English, O’Neil assembled a roster of master teachers, particularly within Fresno Unified, that was ahead of its time.

“They were not just progressive educators, but they were politically and socially active,” Hales said. “Bob ran a student-centered classroom, and he believed in the importance of student empowerment. He saw education as democratization. He didn’t come from a heady university background himself, but he had this real belief in education for everybody.”

Hales said O’Neil made unique collaboration arrangements with local districts, where master teachers from those schools were often recruited as part-time lecturers to teach the methods and materials course (CI 161) at Fresno State, working even more closely with Fresno State credential students.

Hales shared an office with O’Neil for a while, when the English Department was located in the old San Ramon buildings. They bonded over commuting to campus by bicycle. A junior faculty member at the time, Hales said he immediately trusted O’Neil’s good sense and quiet, strong character.

Hales remembers struggling while teaching one of his first literature classes on campus. He told O’Neil, “I keep pitching the ball to them, easy pitches, but they’re not hitting them.” He never forgot O’Neil’s response.

“Bob said, ‘Maybe you should have them throw the ball to each other,’” Hales said. “I kind of knew that, but I needed to be reminded. He was a generation ahead of me, but he was so much more progressive as a teacher.”

In a tribute published in The Fresno Bee, Fresno State alumna Pauline Sahakian remembered taking O’Neil’s undergraduate course in rhetoric. She recalled feeling lost and confused about a writing assignment — a description of a place that conveyed an underlying significance, which should be clear to the reader — until O’Neil met with her in a one-on-one conference.

Sahakian remembered him asking: “Why do you think that?” “Why is it important?” “What does this scene represent?”

“Ultimately, through his questioning and my responding, I found the words to describe the significance of a seemingly normal activity — a walk through a neighborhood — but one that revealed so much more to my young mind,” Sahakian wrote. “… I came to understand this neighborhood as a material world beyond my current grasp.”

Years later, O’Neil found Sahakian teaching at Clovis High, and for the next decade, she felt honored to serve as one of his master teachers.

“It was the highest compliment Dr. O’Neil could have paid me,” Sahakian wrote, “looking at me to share my knowledge of teaching writing, and to inspire teachers in the making.”

Dr. Eugene Zumwalt, a professor emeritus of English, said O’Neil was a devoted teacher who believed in working closely with students on their writing, spending countless hours with them in his office. Zumwalt said O’Neil was also a generous and faithful contributor to the English Department, participating in its debates and committees.

Zumwalt said O’Neil was an avid fly fisherman and fly-tier, he loved hiking in the nearby mountains, and he was always tireless on the trail.

“Bob grew up in Montana and he never forgot that Montana background,” Zumwalt said. “He encouraged less experienced hikers, often with ‘Mr. Goose’ stories, in which Mr. Goose says to Mr. Duck, ‘Mr. Duck, I didn’t know your feets was tired.’ On one famous occasion, when a laggard companion announced he could go no further and wanted his fellow hikers to share his heavy load, Bob replied sadly, ‘I’m very sorry to hear that, but we’ll share the food we have left and our blankets, and we will notify your family where we left you so that they can recover your body and personal belongings.’ After a short period of contemplation, the laggard got up, gathered his belongings, and beat all the rest of the group back to the car.”

According to an obituary published on and printed in The Fresno Bee, O’Neil attended the University of Montana in Missoula. He spent his younger days among the mountains of western Montana, working for the U.S. Forest Service. After military service, O’Neil earned his Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle, writing his dissertation on John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” His favorite authors included Henry James and Willa Cather.

O’Neil’s first wife, Karin, passed away in 1994, two years after his retirement from Fresno State. Soon after, he returned to Montana to live out his retirement in Lakeside, south of Kalispell, on the shore of Flathead Lake.

In retirement, O’Neil volunteered at the Northwest Montana History Museum, sponsored and judged the Ted Crail and Della Ve Carr Poetry Contest for high school students, and taught classes in memoir writing for residents of the Buffalo Hill Terrace retirement community.

O’Neil is survived by his second wife, Bobbie; daughter, Anita O’Neil; son, Sean O’Neil; and granddaughter, Maeve Kaufman. No public services were held.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.