LIMA — Jacqueline O’Neal, The Lima News pointed out in 1993, “is a small woman — barely 5 feet tall — but she has a disarming strength and energy.”
O’Neal’s strength and energy saw her through some tall tasks: raising eight children along with her husband, Homer, and helping prepare thousands of other people’s children for their first year of school.
“As a worker and administrator since its inception in 1965, O’Neal has come to represent Head Start. Her energy and compassion are both definitive of the program and a large reason for its success,” the News wrote in July 1993 as O’Neal ended 27 years with the program, “More than 6,000 children have passed through the Allen County Head Start program under O’Neal’s leadership. They received medical care, nutritional and health information, and education to prepare them to enter public school. Their parents, too, received help, advice and inspiration from O’Neal and her staff.”
The eight children who passed most directly through O’Neal’s care, five sons and three daughters, also profited from her parental advice and inspiration. “We’re not complete angels,” son Ronald O’Neal told the News in July 1999 when the O’Neal family was honored by the Social Confab, a civic organization that promoted education, as its family of the year. “It’s not that we haven’t messed up …, but we had somebody say, ‘This is what’s going to happen if you do this.’”
Ronald O’Neal, who worked in administration at the Franklin County Sanitation Department, died at the age of 52 in October 2017. The other O’Neal children are daughters Monica, who has cerebral palsy, Denise and Paula, and sons Leslie, Timothy, Gregory and Jerome.
Jerome O’Neal, a Lima businessman and civic leader, told News guest columnist Antelle Haithcock in September 2003 that his mother taught her children “not to concentrate on any mistake but to learn from them.” Jerome O’Neal, who operates Plus Health Care, told Our Generation’s magazine in 2005 that his mother’s work as well as her devotion to the disabled eldest daughter of the family influenced him. “My work with the assisted living facility and the nursing home is directly related to Mom teaching me the importance of caring for others.”
“My husband and I are really very proud of our children,” O’Neal told the News in 1999. “We both worked during the time they grew up and their ages were close, so we weren’t able to spend the time we would have like with them. But, they’ve grown and we’ve been proud of them through all the years.”
The O’Neal family arrived in Lima by way of Leflore County, Mississippi, and Muncie, Indiana. Leona Washington, the mother of Homer O’Neal, came to Lima in the 1940s with her second husband, George Washington. Born in Money, Mississippi, in December 1915, she first married Roosevelt O’Neal in 1931 and, after his death, married Washington in 1934. Leona Washington died in Lima in May 1999, a little more than 24 years after her husband.
Their son, Homer O’Neal, was enrolled at Lima’s South High school in 1948 where he was a member of the football team. He also participated in Golden Gloves and AAU boxing. Then, in November 1951, like many young men of that era, Homer O’Neal went into military service, joining the Air Force.
Airman O’Neal would soon join the former Jacqueline Joyce Singleton in marriage. “A date in Sumter, South Carolina, in the mid-1950s, led to the union of Jacqueline and Homer O’Neal,” the News wrote in February 1999. “They married in 1956, moved to Indiana, then to Lima and blessed the community with eight children.”
Homer O’Neal eventually took a job at Dana Corp., from which he retired as a supervisor after 27 years. Jacqueline O’Neal, who had earned a degree in childhood education, immersed herself in the community, working with her church, St. Paul AME, the HY-HO (Help Yourself, Help Others) Club and the Mizpah Community Center.
In March 1968, she accepted membership on the Metropolitan Urban Coalition, a group formed to coordinate efforts to aid the poor. She became an outspoken advocate on the panel. At a meeting in May 1968, the commission heard complaints from south Lima residents concerning the dumping of trash in the 10th to 18th streets areas and the rental of condemned houses. “Mrs. O’Neal noted some south Lima landlords have torn down ‘condemned’ signs and rented the structures,” the News reported.
Meanwhile, in 1966, O’Neal had become affiliated with Head Start as a teacher at Mizpah. Head Start was launched the year before as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society campaign. By 1973, O’Neal was director of the local program, a post she would hold for the next two decades, shepherding both the program and the children it served through years of tight budgets and growing responsibilities.
Commenting on changes in Head Start during its first decade, O’Neal told the News in January 1975 that “the biggest change is now we have to provide more service with the same or less money. For example, we used to give students a physical but now it’s much more complete because it includes a medical and social history, vision and hearing screening, immunization and dental checks.”
And, the News noted in a May 1975 story, Head Start no longer had to “go knocking on doors” to recruit preschool students as it did a decade earlier. “Today they know we’re here,” O’Neal told the News. “We don’t have to go door-to-door anymore.”
When she stepped down nearly two decades later, O’Neal downplayed her own accomplishments to speak of the successes of the program and of the children “who have survived and blossomed because they got the help they needed,” the News wrote in May 1993.
“At first, very few children had any immunity at all,” she said. “We had to start from scratch with physicals and all the shots. Today people are more aware of the services they need. They used to cry when they came, too. Their mothers would be leaving, and they didn’t know what they were in for. Now they come in here eager to learn.”
Reach Greg Hoersten at firstname.lastname@example.org.