O’Neill, who grew up in Cordova, had made plans to start school in fall 1932 after writing to President Charles Bunnell.
“He wrote back and said if you can make enough money working in the mines in the summertime, which I was doing, I’ll give you a job as a janitor and you can work your way for room and board,” O’Neill said in an interview in January 2017.
But the Great Depression interfered.
When O’Neill was a child, his father operated a successful store in Cordova. By summer 1932, between the Great Depression and reduced shipments of copper from the Kennecott mine, the store was failing. To help, O’Neill gave his father the $600 he’d earned that summer, which he had planned to use for college books and expenses.
The next fall, O’Neill successfully enrolled, thanks to Bunnell honoring his earlier offer.
Even so, it took O’Neill eight years to get his mining engineering degree. “I would work two years at the college and then work [mining] for a year or two to get money to send home,” O’Neill explained.
Shortly after graduating, O’Neill joined the Army and trained as a pilot. He didn’t see combat in World War II because he kept getting tapped to run testing, maintenance and training programs at U.S. bases instead. After the war, he returned to Fairbanks, where he became dredge superintendent for the U.S. Smelting, Mining and Refining Co. and earned a master’s degree.
O’Neill took a job in 1953 with the South American Gold and Platinum Co. in Colombia. He found the conditions at the company’s mine deplorable, so he launched a successful campaign to bring medical care, schools and good housing to the workers.
He spent the next 30 years managing mines across Latin America, while based in New York. He has some harrowing tales to tell, including of an escape from Bolivia during the 1964 coup. Starting in 1982, he worked as a consultant for mining projects around the world. He retired in 2005.
O’Neill married his wife, Sandra, in 1967, and they had two children. They lived in Connecticut and Arizona.
O'Neill died on Feb. 15, 2018, at age 102.
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