LIMA — Over the years, Jerome O’Neal has worked alongside some of the most iconic names in Lima’s recent history.
Local legends such as Walter Potts, Frank Lamar, Jessie Pope and Estella Cooper influenced O’Neal. He learned from an early age the power of helping people, deeply ingrained from years of watching his mother, Jacqueline O’Neal, impact so many lives through Allen County Head Start.
“I realize all the shoulders I stood on in the past were sort of prepping me for who I am today,” O’Neal said. “A lot of that is me learning from those who’ve come before me. They have sort of challenged me to be more than what I do, to be more than who I am. They pushed me to give back and try to make a difference.”
For O’Neil, it’s meant decades of working toward inclusivity and understanding among different communities in Lima. It shows in the projects where he helps, such as the Walter C. Potts Entrepreneur and Training Center, the Community Enrichment Dinner, the William Davenport Scholarship and his stint on the local television show, “Hello Lima.” Recent efforts have been on revitalizing the Central District in Lima.
O’Neal is one of the 12 local Jefferson Awards winners. For the win, each received money to donate to a favorite cause. The Lima News will profile each of them between now and the streaming awards show Thursday night, when the representative to the national awards will be announced via Your Hometown Stations’ Facebook page.
“Having conversations with Jerome is like walking over coals,” Catheryn Sarno, who works with O’Neal on the Central District on a proposed dog park, wrote in her nomination letter for the Jefferson Awards. “It’s inspiring, it’s intense, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something that looks impossible. He encourages people to get outside of their comfort zones and do something extraordinary.”
O’Neal said he’s pleased with the steps his hometown has made in recent years. He’s proud of the impact of the Community Enrichment Dinner in bringing an eclectic mix of people together. He’s excited about adding diversity on many boards in the region. He knows there’s still room for improvement, given some racism expressed against him in the past.
“As a guy who has come through the battlefield and been part of the mean-spirited what I call ‘life stuff’ that gets in the way, I can honestly say, with all degree of sincerity, that I’ve been able to get the opportunities I’ve had because of the blessings in this community.”
That’s part of what drives O’Neil, helping people see things they might’ve missed.
“If you can just see something different and be exposed to something different, you do see it from a different perspective,” O’Neal said. “You can get a sense of where someone’s coming from and what experiences they’ve had.”