Perservationist O'Neill dies




Staff writer

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Let's say thanks to Denny O'Neill for being the first to step up to the plate for the support needed to restore iconic projects that have come to define Edenton.

After a hard fought battle with cancer, O'Neill, 75, died Tuesday morning, May 7, at his home on North Broad Street.

O'Neill's legacy endures not only through his family, but the many treasures he supported including the Cupola House, Pembroke Hall and Taylor Theater. Think about that for a moment and let that sink in. Even if you've never been to top of the Cupola House (awesome view) to tour the grounds or visited Pembroke Hall during Pilgrimage, surely most folks have taken in a movie at Taylor Theater.

A memorial service was held Thursday, May 9, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church with a reception to follow at the Cupola House in the beautiful Frances Drane Ingles Garden. Bob Quinn gave a stirring eulogy that appears in its entirety at the end of this story.

“Denny was a major asset to our community and the Cupola House specifically,” said Quinn, a past president of the Cupola House Association. “Unfortunately, my 'eulogy' was not a typical factoid of Denny’s life, but rather an emotional remembrance of his life’s dedication to the Cupola House, friends and family. He was a stalwart citizen, Civil War and WW II historian, an avid reader, a Patrick O’Brian aficionado (a sequence of nautical historical novels). His home library reflected a vast collection of books supporting this love.”

Gay McClelland Chatham is known for her portrayal of Tillie Bond, the last of the Dickinson family to live in the house that her ancestors inhabited for more than 141 years. Having attended many Cupola House functions among other prominent civic events when she served her tour of duty as regent for the Edenton Tea Party chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, McClelland Chatham offered this vignette about O'Neill.

“Denny was a dedicated man not only to his family and friends but to the Cupola House,” she said. “He brought Edenton's past into the present for our future generations to enjoy."

Attorney, civic leader and active preservationist Sambo Dixon worked with O'Neill on many projects in Edenton. He offered six reasons how O'Neill's life made a difference in the lives of others.

“First, he bought an enormously important historic house on Broad Street that was in need of much repair and restored it to the highest standards,” he said. “Second, Denny was a championship swimmer in college and, along with Steve Lane, coached the John A. Holmes High School swimming team.

“Third, Denny was the president of the Cupola House Association. As the president, he was responsible among other things of renewing an interest in the very important collection of decorative furnishings and other items belonging to the Association. Denny cataloged and caused many important papers to be translated.”

Once upon a time, Pembroke Hall was not the necessarily the fine mansion that it is today. For various reasons, the property was in dire financial straights several years ago such that if someone didn't come up with an idea soon, that Confederate ghost haunting the home would've needed to move.

“Denny and his wife Vonna were responsible for the bookings and along with Larry and Mary Jo Sellers the actual implementation of the weddings and other events at Pembroke Hall,” Dixon said. “Their generosity of time and talent allowed the group that purchased Pembroke Hall to remain financially solvent. It also meant thousands of dollars were spent in our historic downtown.”

About two years ago or so, Taylor Theater was in sad shape and in need of repair. Without O'Neill and the others who rallied to the theater's cause, downtown Edenton would be a different place without movies such as the Avengers, Star Wars or Aquaman.

“Denny and Vonna were among the first Edentonians to say yes to a donation to purchase the Taylor Theater,” Dixon said.

When you combine all that together O’Neill’s projects are like the ingredients within a world-renowned West Virginia pepperoni roll such that you have the measure of man whose legacy will endure as long as people visit the Cupola House, bicycle past the gleaming white columns of Pembroke Hall or see the latest Star Wars movie at Taylor Theater.

“Denny always said 'yes and how can I help' to any civic need or cause in Edenton. He was truly a kind and generous man who made an unforgettable mark on Edenton,” Dixon said.

As promised, here is Quinn's eulogy that he offered to the large crowd gathered May 9 in the gardens by the Cupola House.

Denny was a special man, true friend and a real, dedicated Cupolian (jazzy title) bestowed on a select few. Limited Memberships are available.

However; few will ever reach the distinguished level held by Dennis O’Neill.

Denny was amazing, dedicated and committed. Two character traits he exhibited throughout his life. He took on task after task supporting his love for the Cupola House with the same drive he exhibited as an Olympic Class swimmer, as a father and husband and throughout his career.

Denny accumulated, sorted, and recorded the inner sanctum of the Cupola House from literally hundred-year-old, unorganized documents that would drive most of us to distraction. He found boards of distinction, iron rods and other odd things that told more of how the house looked in bygone years.

He attacked structure problems, artifacts, violins, portraits, paint colors with a fury unknown by most of us. Denny was always constantly the gentleman, neat, well-spoken and generous with his time and talent. We, together took on opening every box, closet and chest, dragging out stuff. Denny made sense of it all. I would just stagger about, with a what’s this look.

We had a staffer from NC Museum, reviewing dresses and materials, cleaning and repairing those we discovered, while Denny recorded. We came back from lunch one day and the lady was working away. She had a beautiful white vest on the table. Denny asked her, where did you find such a beautiful white vest, we only had a black one. She said, that’s it. By the way, the dresses and vest are true treasures upstairs in properly sealed and packaged boxes. One of many Denny initiatives. I never knew him to quit a task or not take one on.

I am no expert, but I can tell you Dennis O’Neill left this world (including the Cupola House) a better place than when he arrived, I know that he did that over and over, a gentleman of highest quality a friend to remember and revere. A dreadful loss to us who knew and loved him, a treasured gift to call a father, husband or friend. A unique and wondrous gift to us all. May God Bless Denny O’Neill and his family.