Note: Earl W. O’Neal, Jr. will be honored by receiving the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s Cultural Heritage Award at the fall membership meeting from 6 to 9 p.m.Tuesday, Nov. 11, at the Deepwater Theater (School Road). This is a potluck event and new members are welcome.
First printed in the November 2014 Ocracoke Observer
By Pat Garber
“What a story, if only the live oaks could talk.”
This is the caption Earl O’Neal wrote about the Outer Banks, portrayed by his latest, almost completed book, “A Historical Almanac of the Outer Banks; A Long Voyage Over the Last 488 Years. “
The book, co-written with Mel Covey of Hatteras, is a pictorial history of the Outer Banks, and includes Portsmouth, Beacon and Shell Castle Islands.
The same statement could be applied to Earl himself–what a story!
In Earl’s yard on Back Road is a special live oak named The Buttonhole Tree by his late wife, Dee.
It could probably tell some great tales about Earl and all his undertakings throughout his life, if it could only talk.
Earl, 85, 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 on his father’s home island, and was christened here in the house of his grandfather, “Pop-Pop Ike” (Isaac Willis O’Neal).
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 blue fish and trout off the side of the mail boat, 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 treasured memories.
Earl laughs as he tells this story:
One dark, moonless night, when he was about six, 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 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 shore and clamber their way through the trees and underbrush and 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.
In 1948, Earl 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 join 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 for several agencies and companies in his career on ways to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, such as the generation of electricity.
He married his sweetheart Delores Grace Collins of Philadelphia in 1955, and Earl and Lori, as he fondly called her, spent their two-week honeymoon on Ocracoke.
“Lori, Uncle Rashe and I had a great time,” Earl said. “We spent a lot of time at the beach.” Earl adopted Lori’s daughter, Sharen, and they later had a son, Mark.
Earl and Dee, as she was known to most islanders, moved to Ocracoke in 1990, building a home where his grandparents’ home had stood.
Earl 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.”
All are available in the Ocracoke Community Library and some are for sale in the Ocracoke Preservation Society.
Earl has served as chairman of various Ocracoke boards and committees, 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 Trail.
In 2009, Earl was awarded North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, for service to his community.
In the intervening years, he has continued his work on Ocracoke history, and was instrumental in having the WW II monuments- -the U.S. Navy Loop Shack Hill and the U.S. Navy Beach Jumpers–installed on the island.
He has given lectures in the Ocracoke Preservation Society’s Porch Talk series and at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching.
While Earl has suffered some health setbacks recently, he has hopes of finishing his last book and continuing to explore and describe Ocracoke history.
He lives in the home he and Dee built, and enjoys daily visits and chats with islanders who come to visit him.
Categories: Ocracoke's history & its people