Jim O'Neil

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Welcoming Back a Popular Guy

By Nancy Rineman

Hampton Union, Tuesday, July 24, 2007

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]

Jim O'Neil, a legend in his own time to many of his cronies in Hampton, breaks out in song as he visits friends at The Eatery in Hampton. [Photo by Nancy Rineman]

When Jim O'Neil sits among friends at some of Hampton's finer gathering spots, it's just a matter of time before his melodic voice fills the room.

"Dino's back," one patron announces, as O'Neil sings with arms outstretched, capturing the tone of every legendary singer he emulates. It's a scene that may be repeated other days, at places like The Galley Hatch, Ronjillian's, or Widow Fletcher's.

"He has a voice that could put a young man's voice to shame," claims Chris McCarthy of North Hampton, who says she has known O'Neil for a number of years.

Recently, on a late-afternoon jaunt, the 80-year-old O'Neil scooted through the parking lot at The Eatery in Hampton to visit with staff and friends. The "scooting" was done on O'Neil's recent mode of transportation, a battery-operated scooter decked out with flags, both Irish and American, to make his presence known as he works the back roads to travel from his Dearborn House residence in Hampton just two blocks away.

Patrons this day flocked to him, one asking, "Can I have the next dance?"

"Everybody loves somebody sometime," O'Neil delivered, in a true likeness of Dean Martin.

After chatting with half a dozen friends, as predicted, but really without warning, O'Neil breaks out in song, this time with "Seabees of the Navy," followed by "Pave the Way to Victory," both songs falling on younger, unfamiliar ears but well-known to O'Neil since 1944, when he was a member of the U.S. Naval Seabees during World War II.

O'Neil's penchant for socialization took a detour recently, when a period of ill health was an unwelcome visitor last fall, making the hospital his home for the next six months. It was a time of concern, too, for the many friends who found themselves missing O'Neil and wondering when they would see him again.

Besides his well-known singing talent, O'Neil delights in storytelling, with the lucky listeners learning lots about the good old days in rich detail. And then there's the painting. A visitor to O'Neil's Dearborn House residence will need ample time to take in the many images painted by O'Neil; beautiful likenesses of castles in Ireland, coastal scenes, lighthouses, all painted from picture copies.

But the impressive list of interests doesn't end there.

"When I was a kid, I always liked to sing," O'Neil said.

And O'Neil took that singing to the stage, appearing in the spring of 1999 in 34 performances of "Camelot" at the Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, where he was cast as "the Archbishop."

Long before stage plays, O'Neil performed singing gigs whenever he could. Perhaps his most memorable event occurred in the late 1950s, when a booking agent phoned him, asking him if he'd like to participate in a variety show. It turned out the show was being held at Walpole State Prison in Massachusetts and, as O'Neil put it, "in front of 500 prisoners, murderers, robbers and rapists, we put on a great show and received a standing ovation."

The "real deal" for O'Neil, however, was the 20 years he was employed as a truck driver, first for Quinn Trucking Lines, where he was sales and terminal manager, then Hemingway Trucking Transportation. To this day, O'Neil can recall all the details of those days, including departure dates and times, room rates for layovers in New Jersey, New York City, and times of the arrivals back to Massachusetts.

"It took eight to 10 hours running time to Philadelphia, six to seven hours to New York, between six and eight hours to New Jersey," O'Neil reminisced, with all different kinds of loads being transported, cargo from factories and paper mills, to food products.

"My father was one of the first tractor-trailer drivers in Lawrence, (Mass.)," O'Neil said. "I was born and raised in a truck. I lived in a truck."

When O'Neil celebrated his 80th birthday on May 6, he did so with daughter, Christine, who flew in from Chicago, and sons Mike, of Hampton Beach, and Jay of Exeter.

"Nine of us had a grand time," O'Neil said.

Maggie DiCessare of Rye, who was tending to O'Neil and other patrons in the lounge at The Eatery, disclosed why O'Neil, who is a widower, resides at the Dearborn House.

"Because there are 46 women to 10 men," she announced, jokingly.

"I always check under the bed to make sure no one is there," O'Neil retorted.

DiCessare gave O'Neil a warm embrace after presenting him with a glass of Pinot Grigio.

Diane and Tony Marino of North Hampton were enjoying a beverage at the bar and said they were glad to see their friend again. They raved about O'Neil's artistic abilities as well as his singing voice.

"He's a Renaissance man," Tony Marino said.

Driving was as much a part of O'Neil's life on his days off as it was when he was on the road for trucking companies. He and his wife, Vivian, especially enjoyed drives along the coast of the North Shore of Massachusetts.

"That's why giving up driving was so hard for me," O'Neil said.

Jim O'Neil may have given up driving an automobile, but he has not given up the drive to be out and about, delivering songs and enjoying meaningful conversations with the many friends he has met along the way.

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