Island historian and raconteur Earl O’Neal Jr., 87, died May 26 in the McCall Hospice House, Simpsonville, S.C.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 24 in the Ocracoke United Methodist Church.
Born July 27, 1929, O’Neal’s island roots on his father’s side go back to the early 1700s and include many original Ocracoke families.
A son of Earl Williams O’Neal and Luisa Gutt, an immigrant from Prussia, Earl grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., where his father went to find work as did many Ocracoke men in the early 20th century. The elder O’Neal worked as a rigger’s helper at the Philadelphia Navy Yards, and Earl Jr. spent his summers at his grandfather Big Ike O’Neal’s island home.
O’Neal’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 island mail boat.
O’Neal married Delores Grace Collins, in 1955. He adopted Lori’s daughter. O’Neal and his wife later had a son, Mark, who lives in Simpsonville, S.C.
O’Neal joined the Navy Reserve in 1948 and during the Korean War enlisted in the Army Signal Corps. He was selected as one of the first eight people to work at the Army’s experimental nuclear power plant in Idaho. 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.
O’Neal and his wife, who came to be known as Dee, moved to Ocracoke in 1990, building a home where his grandparents’ house had stood. He then devoted himself to learning and writing about all aspects of Ocracoke history.
“Earl collected an unbelievable amount of local island history and genealogy,” said Philip Howard. “Future generations will be forever indebted to him for the amount of information he has unearthed and preserved for Ocracoke.”
With that information, O’Neal wrote a number of books covering such topics as the Ocracoke ponies, the Coast Guard and Navy base, “Ocracoke Island, Its People, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Base During World War II,” several genealogies of island families and an autobiography titled “One Boy’s Life.”
His final book, “A Historical Almanac of the Outer Banks; A Long Voyage Over the Last 488 Years,” co-written with Mel Covey of Hatteras Island, is a pictorial history of the Outer Banks and includes Portsmouth, Beacon and Shell Castle islands.
Among his other books is “Ocracoke Island History.” Some of his books can be purchased at the Ocracoke Preservation Society museum, 49 Water Plant Rd.
O’Neal designed Ocracoke’s Civil War marker that is part of the Dare County Civil War Trail and was instrumental in the placement of two World War II markers on the island—the Navy Beach Jumpers marker on Highway 12 outside the village and the headstone at the British Cemetery listing the 37 British sailors lost in the sinking of the HMT Bedfordshire.
He lectured frequently about island history and served as chairman of many Ocracoke boards and committees.
“He was always willing to share his experiences and vast knowledge of history with our NCCAT teachers,” said Alton Ballance, the Center Fellow at the North Carolina Center for Advanced Training. “We will miss him.”
O’Neal was a director of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras and an associate for the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo.
In 2009, O’Neal was awarded North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, for service to his community.
The Ocracoke Preservation Society presented him its Cultural Heritage Award in 2014.
In addition to his son and daughter, O’Neal is survived by five grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.