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.