Bernard Joseph O’Neil III Obituary
Dad wrote a draft of this obituary himself. He was a great writer and a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, friend, and colleague. My edits, made the day after his death, were largely limited to the removal of various self-deprecating statements originally peppered herein. As my mother Betty, his wife of 51 years put it, “He didn’t know what a great guy he was, but we do.”
-Erin (O’Neil) Rowe, June 24, 2022
Bernard O’Neil, an employee of various Nashville area hospital companies and consulting firms since 1994, died on June 23 after a long battle with chronic illness. He came to Nashville to accept a vice president position in the Intensive Resource Division of Quorum Health, an HCA spin off. The division was renamed Cambio Health and ultimately was bought from Quorum by its own employees. In 2005, Cambio was purchased by FTI Consulting, inc. where O’Neil remained employed through 2021.
Bernard (Bernie) O’Neil was born in 1944 in Boston, MA. He was the first of two children of Bernard (Joe) O’Neil and Mary (Gill) O’Neil. He had one sister, Marie. He attended public schools and graduated from Boston Latin, a classical exam school, in 1961. Latin School was highly regimented and he did well there, graduating seventh in a class of 273. At graduation, he was called to the stage to receive the (Benjamin) Franklin medal which was awarded to the top seven graduates. It was a prestigious award, but Bernie had never heard of it.
He was accepted to and enrolled at Harvard, which was expected of top Latin School graduates. His Harvard experience was not good for many reasons. The main problem was that Bernie had no goals or interests and probably should not have gone to any college at that time. He did graduate with a concentration in mathematics, which he picked because the math classes were close to the subway stop, there were no sweaty labs, and all that was required was writing symbols on paper.
After graduation Bernie’s overall prospects were limited. The local economy was dead. Graduate school was not an option because of lack of both money and motivation. The Vietnam fiasco was heating up and the draft was calling up tens of thousands of young men. Bernie distinguished himself by failing five draft physicals. With nothing much to do and a philosophical mindset of 1960s trendy Marxism, Bernie ended up working in the Great Society poverty program in Kentucky. In a few years, he became quite disillusioned with the value of such programs, but the period did enable him to at least begin thinking a bit more clearly and shed some of the muddle-headed ideas once held.
One noteworthy experience of this period was meeting Martin Luther King, Jr. In August 1966 Bernie was in Atlanta and went to church at Ebenezer Baptist where King was pastor. King was in the pulpit every other week because his extensive civil rights activities kept him on the road most of the time. Bernie was greeted at the door by M.L. King, Sr., also a minister, who introduced himself as “the daddy of the King.” Bernie was invited to adult Sunday school preceding the service and had no choice but to go. The lesson was about St. Paul. The service itself was worth waiting for. The choir was exceptionally good and King’s articulate sermon was a diatribe against the Vietnam conflict in which among other things he referred to Toynbee’s concept of the creative minority. In contrast to the subject matter of the sermon it was rhythmically delivered in the oratorical style of a down home black Southern Baptist preacher. Consequently, the sermon evoked numerous congregational responses of “that’s right,” and “amen.”
The church was standing room only, and at the end of the service the congregation was invited to the basement for lemonade and cookies. Bernie accepted and eventually noticed that King suddenly was standing alone. He approached him and extended his hand. King did likewise and they shook. Bernie waited a bit for King to speak, but he didn’t, so Bernie told him that he enjoyed the sermon. King thanked him and Bernie promptly took his leave because several congregants were lining up.
The context of this handshake is important to explain so many years later. In 1966, Georgia was very polarized racially and a segregationist was running for Governor and ultimately won. There were very few white people at the church service and Bernie was a big fat one who looked like a redneck from central casting. King was not very tall but had a very sturdy build. He had no bodyguard in evidence and showed no emotion when Bernie suddenly approached him. A lack of concern for his own safety was palpable. Bernie remembers thinking at the time how easy it would have been to kill him.
The tumultuous year 1968 was a turning point in Bernie’s life. He met the woman who would agree to marry him three years later. They met in Paducah, Ky, where Bernie was unemployed and wondering what to do next. Betty roared into town as the organizer of the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign for the Congressional district. She asked Bernie to be a delegate at the county convention and he accepted because his favorite candidate, Bobby Kennedy, had been assassinated and McCarthy was the logical next choice. At this time, Bernie had resigned himself to a life of bachelorhood. Betty didn’t know it, but meeting her changed his mind. She was intelligent, energetic, and fearless. Also, she was rather good-looking. Bernie decided to work on pulling his life together even if the chance of courting Betty was remote. They never really dated and saw each other only a few times in the intervening three years. Mostly they were pen pals. People wrote letters then.
In 1971, Bernie had earned a master’s degree in city planning from Texas A&M and Betty was Head Nurse of the emergency service at Yale New Haven Hospital in her hometown. They decided to marry and did so on July 22 at the Bryan, Texas courthouse. The J.P. officiant was the only witness. After a few months of wandering, they moved to Western Kentucky where Betty worked first as a nurse and later as a librarian. Bernie worked for a planning and engineering consulting firm. In 1974, they moved to New Haven to be close to Betty’s family and Betty resumed nursing. Bernie had no luck at getting a city planning job but secured work at a federally funded health services research and planning boondoggle. This was another turning point because Bernie met a retired physician who took a liking to him and had many contacts in the hospital industry. By the end of 1975 Bernie was on the executive management team of a large New Jersey hospital, a job which he was not qualified for either by education or experience. Betty helped a lot by coaching him in the mysteries of hospital terms, and he survived the early years of learning on the job. Also, the couple had become parents with the birth of Erin. So, Bernie had achieved two of the things he lacked at the time he met Betty: a career and a life purpose.
A congenital anti-careerist, Bernie always thought of his hospital work as a series of jobs. The work did produce instability early in the couple’s marriage with moves from Connecticut to New Jersey, back to Connecticut, to Massachusetts, back to Connecticut and finally to Tennessee where they lived since 1994. Bernie proved to have an ability to understand and solve complicated management problems, as well as a head for numbers. Family obligations motivated the development of a robust work ethic. Just the same, Bernie always felt like a bystander in hospital operations because of a lack of clinical skills or knowledge. Betty, as a nurse did real things curing illness and mitigating pain and suffering. Bernie was delighted that both daughters, a veterinarian and a physician did real things, producing real services rather than shuffling paper. Apart from their careers his daughters were a great source of joy to him from birth to adulthood. They are devoted to their parents, broadly educated and virtuous.
Bernie and Betty were married for 51 years. The first ten years coincided with high inflation, high interest rates and high unemployment. Both of the newlyweds brought negative net worth to the union which added to the problems of getting established. However, they got by and never argued about money. They had some bumps along the way but never a serious breach. Over their years of marriage, they did ultimately fulfill the biblical ideal that they become as one. It just took a bit longer than the bible seemed to suggest.
Bernie’s health began to fail around 1995 with a growing list of problems. Ultimately, he was eligible for disability but stubbornly refused to quit. He was able to continue working for three more decades with immense help and care from Betty and the thoughtful accommodations of his employer.
Asked for his greatest accomplishments, Bernie unhesitatingly would say that he had worked up the courage to ask Betty to marry him and persisted in that goal. Having Betty and then two daughters gave him three compelling reasons to try to be a better man than he ever would have been. With respect to his career, Bernie believed that the important work in hospitals was done by doctors, nurses, and other clinicians and that his job was to stay out of their way. He lamented the massive growth in administrative and financial bureaucracy that occurred in health care in the past fifty years and, sadly, just about everywhere else.
He is survived by his wife, Betty O’Neil of Brentwood TN, daughter, Erin Rowe of North Haven, CT and her spouse, Josiah Rowe, daughter, Eve Sriharan of Lebanon, NH and her spouse Aravindhan Sriharan, granddaughters Ashlin, Diana, and Verity Rowe, and sister Marie Davidson of Glenview, IL.
Burial will be private.
A memorial luncheon will be held at Mere Bulles in Brentwood on July 30th, 2022 from 12 – 3 PM. RSVP by emailing [email protected] by July 14th.
Charitable contributions in Bernie’s memory may be made to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home, the Nashville Humane Society, or Friends of the Tree Warden of Groton Massachusetts.
WILLIAMSON MEMORIAL FUNERAL HOME 615-794-2289. 3009 Columbia Ave, Franklin, Tennessee 37064 https://www.williamsonmemorial.com
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