Mike O’Neal: A Bahai who likes to fix things

Savannah Morning News column

Oct. 19, 2014

Mike O’Neal: A Bahai who likes to fix things

Life is all one big circle. You think you’re doing one thing, then boom, Hermes or some other capricious mythological god intervenes and it turns out to be something entirely different. Take that day 38 years ago when Mike O’Neal, on track to graduate from Savannah State University, gave a couple of friends a lift to International Paper (“I had a car,” he said. “They didn’t”) to apply for a job.

Those were the days when you could look someone in the eye and sell yourself as something other than a name and a resume on a screen.

Mike, today the face, brains and “50 percent of the staff” behind Parent University and Early Childhood College, had no intention of applying for a job even though for thousands of people International Paper – then Union Camp – was the only game in town. But while he was sitting there he joined in and filled out an application. He got the job, his friends didn’t.

He started off as a general labor person in limekiln. He went on to the shipping department as a clerk. Then he drove a truck. Several months later he moved into the electrical department.

“The woman who gave me the job, Ruth Christian, I’ll never forget her name, she changed my life,” Mike said. “It was a steady job that paid well.”

Just the fact that Mike, a Philadelphia native, was in Savannah at all was a serendipitous occasion. He had been going to the University of Pittsburgh when he traveled to South Carolina to visit his grandmother, who was ill. While there he started talking to his uncle, Ernest Nicholson (Uncle Skeet), who taught math on Savannah State University.

“I was telling him how expensive Pitt was when he convinced me to try Savannah State,” Mike said.

Though he never graduated, his path was clear. He always liked electrical stuff, science and fixing things, which is kind of what led him to Parent University, some 14 years ago.

“I was still in Philadelphia when this lady on our block started a Junior Achievement club,” he started. “I was 15 or 16. We had meetings. We did stuff for people. I took minutes. I was president. I saw myself in a whole different light.”

As soon as he got his footing at International Paper he started a Junior Achievement chapter in Savannah. But something wasn’t going right. The kids would leave on Thursday or Friday all excited but when they came back on Monday their mood had changed. All Mike could get out of them was their parents didn’t get what they were doing. That’s when Mike decided to take back off Junior Achievement for a year and to see if maybe he needed to approach the problem from another angle.

“It was the parents,” he said. “They didn’t feel connected with the process.They wanted to support their kids but they didn’t know how. They felt marginalized by the institutions, the school, and the courts. Parenting is a very private and sometimes insulating thing. You have the institutions with all this power so they think it must be them.”

Last week, Mike, 58, watched 200 parents crowd into Otis Brock elementary school for one of 12 sessions of the early learning college at four different elementary schools. Early learning is designed for parents of children up to three years old. Parent University, for children up to 18, meets three times a year.

“One of our jobs is to love them out of their defensiveness,” said Mike, the father of four and grandfather of nine. “We try to make parents feel more connected. Isolation is the most under-discussed issue of all.”

In the end, it’s all about people.

Which is the driving force behind Mike’s involvement with the Bahai Faith.

“We’re about bringing unity to the community,” he says of the congregation that meets on Waters Avenue. It’s not a religion, Mike says. It’s a community that seeks to unify mankind.

Mike’s involvement with Bahai is another circuitous story.

“I learned about it at Savannah State from a fraternity brother at Kappa Alpha Psi,” which Mike described as a “traditionally African American fraternity.” Except this young man who was pledging the fraternity “was a white guy.”

“Bahai has changed my life,” Mike said, “no less than International Paper or Uncle Skeet. We think we’re in charge but then something like providence steps in and takes over.”

And then the host on the city of Savannah’s TV show on Parent University, the man with the ebullient personality and the big smile stepped out of my car – where we were talking because when you work 50 hours a week, as Mike does, that’s the best he could do – and headed back to the sprawling plant on the west side of town that was such a good fit for the young man from Philadelphia who likes fixing things.

Mother Love leaves her legacy

Savannah Morning News column

Oct. 12, 2014

The best book I’ve read lately – and am still reading: it’s long – is Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns.” I think it should be required reading for all high school students, both present and past. Wilkerson, who spoke at last year’s Savannah Book Festival, chronicles the Great Migration of nearly six million black people who fled the South for northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970, her mother among them. The north, as you might expect, was not always the panacea they sought.

At the same time I’m reading this I picked up Sunday’s New York Times’ travel section and read the latest take on Savannah. It’s not pretty. This writer reports on the city’s great racial divide. He calls it the “Low Country blackout” in a city more interested in pimping its beauty than looking at its underbelly. Savannah, he says, does not want to own up to its past. Even Charleston has gone the extra mile to say, “Yes, we had slavery. Yes, it was wrong and ugly and despicable, but we are acknowledging it.”

Not Savannah. We can’t even go so far as to put up historic markers for certain influential local African-Americans, despite the considerable efforts of art maven and mover and shaker Walter Evans.

There’s so much we don’t know about one another, so much history never studied, never noted, which is what made a recent conversation with Rev. Charlie Dillard so interesting. Rev. Dillard, who just retired from Chatham Steel, is the pastor of Bunn Memorial Baptist Church. The church, housed in a pleasant-looking red brick building, is sandwiched between East Gwinnett and Wheaton streets, not too far from the CAT station and Hubert Middle School. The church and the neighborhood were originally occupied by white families, Dillard said.

We were there to talk about Sadie Steele. Mother Steele, which is what most people called her (or Mother Love), had just died. She was103. Before taking the reins, Rev. Dillard heard a bit of tongue in cheek advice from church members.

“When I got here 20 years ago, I was told, ‘You may be the pastor, but Mother Steele runs the church.’”

She joined the church at 18 when her family – “which were pretty affluent,” Dillard said – left Bolton Street Baptist Church to follow the then preacher, Rev. Bunn, who “envisioned a church where anyone could attend. He used to go through the neighborhood in a horse and buggy picking up people.”

That church was called All Peoples New Century Baptist Church.

Sadie Steele didn’t make it into Isabel Wilkerson’s epic tale but in many ways her story probably reflects the lives of many people who stayed in the south.

As a child she went to Emma Swangon, “a private school,” Dillard said of a Savannah school that has no presence on the Internet let alone a historical marker, before going on to the better-known Cuyler Street School, established in 1915 for African American students. Then, as many students, black and white, she was sent away to aschool in Jacksonville, Fla., Stanton High School, Duval County Colored Schools. After that she graduated from the Normal Department of Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youths, which eventually morphed into Savannah State University. She returned home and married Clarence Steele, whose father owned Steele and Royal, a funeral home.

She taught at Haven Home, a former Savannah school that does have a historical marker. The school was established in 1885, smack in the middle of Jim Crow, as a school for African American girls. Then she taught at Johnson High School and Thunderbolt elementary, wining several Chatham County teacher of the year awards.

During the Civil Rights movement, she and activist W.W. Law would meet surreptitiously at Sadie Steele’s home to plan strategy. Later she would help Law set up his Negro History Tour.

Many people knew Sadie Steele through her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, many through the classroom, still others from 27 years of volunteer work at Goodwill Industries.

In the mid-1980s, when the Housing Authority of Savannah wanted to raze Bunn Memorial for the then new Blackshear Homes, Steele rallied the neighborhood and said, “Oh no, you don’t.”  She wanted to keep the existing churches intact, said Dillard.

But when she passed away last month her church knew something else about her. There would be no funeral and there would be no flowers, even though her house, where she gave a New Year’s Day party every year, was known as the “crystal palace” because she had so many flowers. She requested money be given to a favorite charity or Bunn Memorial.

“She knew people at a funeral would cry,” said Deacon Larry Johnson. “She wanted to leave people happy. She was a warrior.”