Earl O'Neal continues to chronicle Ocracoke's history
By PAT GARBER
“What a story, if only the live oaks could talk.”
is the caption Ocracoker Earl O’Neal wrote to go with a photograph of
the Outer Banks, as portrayed in his latest, almost completed book, "A
Historical Almanac of the Outer Banks; A Long Voyage Over the Last 488
The book, co-written with Hatteras Islander Mel
Covey, is a pictorial history of the Outer Banks, and includes
Portsmouth, Beacon, and Shell Castle islands.
The same statement could be applied to Earl O’Neal himself -- what a story!
Earl’s yard on Back Road is a special live oak, named the Buttonhole
Tree by his deceased wife, Dee. It could probably tell some great tales
about Earl and all his undertakings throughout his life, if it could
Earl O’Neal Jr., 85 years old, has island
roots on his father’s side that go back to the early 1700s, and include
many of the original Ocracoke families. The son of Earl Williams O’Neal
and Luisa Gutt, an immigrant from Prussia, he grew up in Philadelphia.
He spent his summers at his father’s home island and was christened at
the house of his grandfather, “Pop-Pop Ike” (Isaac Willis O’Neal) in
Ocracoke at the age of 5 weeks.
Earl’s memories of those
summers include sitting on the porch with his grandfather, who told him
stories of the sea and taught him to tie knots, going out to the duck
blinds to hunt ducks and geese with his Uncle Rashe and his father, and
fishing for bluefish and trout off the side of the mailboat, the
Ocracoke. He recalls with delight the still warm, light rolls with
butter his Grandmother Helen made, and eating 18 of them before dinner
one day. Movies at the Wahab Village Motel, dances at the Spanish
Casino, and sailing in his Uncle Wahab’s sailboat are some of his other
etched into Earl’s memory is his Pop-Pop’s Model T (or A) car, which he
says his grandfather had driven through the side of Old Bob’s stable on
the day he got it. Later, when Earl, age 3, was at the morning service
of the Northern Methodist Church next to his grandparent’s home, he saw
the car go by and yelled out, loud enough for all to hear, “There goes
Earl laughs as he tells this story: One dark,
moonless night, when he was about 6 years old, he went flounder gigging
with his dad, Oscar Jackson, and Sam Keech in a sailboat. They sailed
out the Creek, headed Up Trent, and anchored in shallow water.
Then they took their kerosene lanterns and flounder gigs and proceeded
to gig about 40 fish, which they strung on a big line, carried between
two of the men. At that point, they realized that they had forgotten to
leave a lantern on in the boat. They were unable to find it in the
pitch dark, and finally had to wade to the shoreline and find their way
through the trees and underbrush to walk home. Someone went back for
the boat the next day.
Earl’s father went north to find work, as
did many of the island men in the early 20th century. He had a job as a
rigger’s helper at the Cramp Ship and Philadelphia Navy Yards, and
according to Earl, he opened
his home to friends and relatives from Ocracoke who came looking for
work in the Great Depression. Earl Jr. grew up in a row house that was
only 12 feet wide. He got a job at the age of 8 running errands for a
candy store, and by 12, he was unloading lumber trucks for a company
called Arctic Refrigeration.
In 1948, he joined the U.S. Navy
Reserve and during the Korean War enlisted in the Army Security Agency
Army Signal Corps. He was selected as one of the first eight people to
become part of the U.S. Army Cadre for the SL-1 Nuclear Power Plant. He
went on to earn a diploma in Nuclear Engineering from the University of
Virginia, and worked on ways to use nuclear energy for peaceful
purposes, such as the generation of electricity.
the Army, Earl stayed in Idaho, where he was last stationed, and
continued to work with nuclear power. He was employed by various
companies throughout the country. He eventually became the assistant
division head in charge of engineering personnel for all control
systems at 15 nuclear and 34 fossil fuel power plants, under his
design, and was chairman of one of the first Instrument Nuclear
Standards to be used in the U.S.
In 1965, he changed
careers and became a sales engineer and later an instrument and
controls system engineer, living in Illinois, and working for a number
of companies in several states. In 1988, he joined Nuclear Energy
Consultants, setting up an engineering office to support the nuclear
industry in the Midwest.
Early on, Earl had met a young woman,
Delores Grace Collins, at a Philadelphia trolley stop and had fallen in
love. While it did not work out at the time, when he returned from
military service in 1955, they reconnected
and were married. Earl and Lori, as he fondly called her, spent their
two-week honeymoon at Ocracoke, where “Lori, Uncle Rashe, and I had a
great time, and spent a lot of time at the beach.” Earl adopted Lori’s
daughter, Sharen, and they later had a son, Mark.
Earl and his
wife, who came to be known as Dee to most islanders, moved to Ocracoke
in 1990, building a home where his grandparents’ house had stood.
He has since devoted himself to learning and writing about all aspects
of Ocracoke history.
He is the author of a number of
books, covering such topics as the U.S Coast Guard and Navy Base during
World War II, the history of island families such as the O’Neals,
Howards, and Williams, and an autobiography titled “One Boy’s Life.” He
has served as chairman of various Ocracoke boards and committees, a
director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, and the
Outer Banks History Center Associates in Manteo, and designed
Ocracoke’s Civil War marker as part of the Dare County Civil War
On Dec.15, 2009, Earl O’Neal Jr. was awarded North
Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, for
service to his community.
He has, in the intervening years,
continued his work on Ocracoke history and was instrumental in having
two World War II markers put in place on the island to commemorate the
U.S. Navy Loop Shack Hill and the U.S. Navy Beach Jumper. He gave
lectures in the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s Porch Talk series and
at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teachers facility,
located in the old Coast Guard Station.
While Earl has suffered
some health setbacks recently, he has hopes of finishing his last book
and continuing to explore and write about Ocracoke history.