Patrick O’Neill is one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever known. I met him 11 years ago when I was an editor at The Chapel Hill News and he was this tall, lanky guy who was always coming into the office (where he’d been a reporter) to change his clothes and go for a cross-country run, often with his young daughter, Bernadette. He was charming and easy-going. I had no idea what he was really all about.
Patrick and his wife, Mary Rider, arrived in the Triangle in 1987 after he spent 26 months in federal prison in Atlanta for breaking into a Martin Marietta plant in Orlando, Fla., to protest its production of Pershing II missiles (“I always tell people I lived in Atlanta, but didn’t get out much”). Once here, he and Mary established the Father Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker House, an intentional community in Garner where they offer help, a home and hospitality to women and children in crisis.
And Patrick has continued his journalism. He’s been a longtime contributor to the Independent, and until recently wrote a religion column for The Chapel Hill News. He considers that, too, part of his mission: “You can believe in something and you can write about something you believe in. You don’t have to masquerade as flies on the wall, though as a journalist, I try to remain somewhat separate from the action to observe and write about it.” Nothing I’ve ever seen Patrick do can top this past week. Thursday evening, he helped teach non-violent techniques to protesters planning to march on a CIA front at the Johnston County Airport. That night, he covered the heartbreaking execution of Elias Syriani at Central Prison. He went to bed at 4 a.m., and at 6 a.m. Bernadette woke him up to head to the Johnston County protests, where they both were arrested and jailed. They got out of jail around 5 p.m., rushed home, grabbed three more of his kids (he and Mary have eight), and they piled in a van and drove all night to Fort Benning, Ga., to cover the annual protest Sunday at the U.S. Army’s former School of the Americas, where local activist Gail Phares was arrested. They drove home for 12 hours in the rain, and Patrick spent Monday and Tuesday writing. It’s appropriate that his stories run in this, our annual Citizen Awards issue. Patrick and Mary were winners in 1996, as was Gail Phares in 2001. And Patrick’s daughter, Bernadette, is following in her father’s footsteps (literally): In addition to her political activism, the senior at Cardinal Gibbons High School won third place in the state 2A cross-country track championships. They are indeed hard people to keep up with.