Mike O'Neill: An Appreciation

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Many Old Bedians will have been moved to learn of the passing, in September 2018, of a loved and respected Head of English and subsequently Librarian at the Senior School.

Mike O’Neill joined us in September 1983, having been born in 1935, the youngest of three brothers in Yorkshire, fresh from a distinguished 13 Year Tour of Duty at the Island School, Hong Kong, where he had led the English Department and later served as Assistant Principal and, among other things, its Sailing Club Skipper. His appointment at Bede’s  was somewhat fortuitous. His predecessor had left the post during the Summer Break in an untimely manner, at the same time as Mike and his family returned to the UK. Dispensing with formal protocol, and under the circumstances, Roger Perrin’s intuition as to who was a ‘good bloke’, paid off in both the long and short term.

Those of you who were taught by Mike, and those of us who served under him in the English Department, sensed immediately his intellectual qualities combined with an array of interests reaching far beyond the formal Fellowship of the Chalk and Duster; all this held together by a truly human sensitivity; Renaissance Man who had time for everyone. Hence, his students recognised at once that they were in the hands of a scholar who knew his stuff. His literary knowledge was encyclopaedic, interspersed with Germanic allusions, and his A Level results were always of the highest order. Indeed, Mike’s affection for Literature was infectious. As one otherwise less than committed student put it: “He could even make Chaucer seem interesting.”

He took his Tutoring role in Camberlot very seriously; none more so than when he put his musical talents to the fore, leading his house to victory time and again at the annual Music Competition. This is symptomatic. Mike’s talents were ‘catholic’ (not simply in the light of the formal price he paid to win the hand of his soulmate and wife, Margaret), which he shared with his students at the school. A keen golfer, he helped ‘Christen’ the school’s Driving Range, and he was a formidable competitor on the cricket field. Right miffed he was when playing for the Staff XI, the Captain, one Mr Perrin, relieved him from a spell of bowling “just when I was getting into my stride”.

Retirement?...What Retirement?...Mike took on the role of School Librarian, being responsible for establishing it in its new location and, in building such a viable entity, recruiting an Assistant. Enter, Maria Vincent... Her initial introduction to Mike, by her own account, did raise reservations but within days, a professional partnership developed into a wonderfully effective service. Thus, when Mike eventually handed the entire reins to Maria, she paid glowing tribute to her warm hearted mentor.

So the scene was set for Mike to devote his final years to his family first, and to his beloved Alfriston a close second, at the daffodil fringed ‘Fossil Cottage’ (if ever there was a misnomer, this was it), where one or two overseas Bedians made their term-time home. In their ‘spare time’ he and Margaret continued to run The Tudor Rose Tea House in the village and Mike took pleasure upwardly gazing from the self-constructed Observatory at Fossil Cottage. Musically he didn’t go to seed, employing his Tenor skills in ‘The Croakers’ Ensemble. He featured as a leading light in the ‘Alfriston Players’, producing ‘Shakespeare on The Tye’, and sponsoring the ‘Bottomley Opera’ (how appropriate). His annual Dickens Christmas Nights became an indispensable feature of the village calendar. He loved serving as a volunteer driver for the Cuckmere Community Bus operative, which co-incidentally took him via The Dicker and his Twenty-First Renaissance credentials were formally verified by the acquisition of a University-accredited Diploma in Classical Studies. How proud were his children of their devoted Father, in whom he invested so much time in sharing his interests, and of their Mum, Margaret, who predeceased him 18 months previously.

Those alumni who knew Mike well, and reading this, I’m sure would wish to thank Mr Perrin vicariously for his prescience in appointing Mike, on a hunch and at such short notice, to a pivotal role in your lives. I invite you to raise a glass to his memory and a life lived to the full. The sentiment he bequeathed to his own children is worth a wider dispersion: “Never let money stop you from doing what you want to do."


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