Love of a Lifetime

Cal Poly Pomona couple leave a lasting legacy at the university

John and Mary O'NeilIn September 1968, John (Jack) O’Neil was working as an aerospace engineer for the Hughes Aircraft Company in Culver City. Little did he know that his life was about to take off in an entirely new direction.

Joining a social group of 20-somethings at Our Lady of Assumption in Claremont, he spotted a young woman who was, he remembers, “beautiful, charming and a delightful person.” The encounter marked the start of a romance that continues to this day.

The “beautiful person” was Mary O’Neil (’71, mathematics; ’73, master’s in mathematics). A Southern California native, she had just enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona as a junior after earning an associate degree at a community college and spending a year volunteering with VISTA, a national community service organization.

As soon as he saw Mary, Jack knew that he was looking at the love of his life. A whirlwind courtship followed. And their lives would become entwined in another way, too. Jack would wind up joining the Cal Poly Pomona faculty in 1970, the start of a 33-year career.

Mary recalls their first date as a “three-in-one: dinner, the movies and drinks.”

The O’Neils are world travelers and have been on six continents, 17 African safaris and many trips to Europe.He took me to Lowry’s Prime Rib in L.A. and then we went to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ Afterward, we had drinks at Trader Vic’s,” she says.

The couple dated through the fall. In early November, just two months after they’d met, they attended a football game and then stopped back at Jack’s apartment — where he proposed.

Mary accepted instantly, knowing that she, too, had met her match.

In June 1969, they married at the very church where they’d met.

Mary proved to be not only “beautiful, charming and delightful” but also a groundbreaker. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she was accepted into Cal Poly Pomona’s new graduate mathematics program. In June 1973, she was one of four students to earn a master’s degree in the program’s first graduating class.

“We’ve both shared an understanding in terms of commitment to our jobs,” says Mary, who, after earning her master’s degree, taught at Pomona Catholic High School, Bishop Amat High School and Glendora High School, from
which she retired in 2004.

“And we loved that we could travel together over the summers and during breaks,” she says.

The O’Neils became globetrotters. Their extensive journeys took them to six continents, and their adventures included 17 African safaris.

“We took two to three overseas trips a year," says Jack, a professor emeritus of engineering. “We loved to travel — especially together.”

On campus, they earned a reputation as a go-to young couple for social events. “The university was central to our lives,” Mary says. “I was able to meet people from other departments through a women’s club for women faculty and faculty wives. It was very social. We’d have progressive dinners with other couples, and I helped organize fashion shows as fundraisers. I was the club’s treasurer for about a decade.”

Jack and Mary O’Neil have raised collies for 48 of the 49 years they have been married.

Jack and Mary O'Neil have raised collies for 48 of the 49 years they have been married.

Their hospitality extended to Cal Poly Pomona students, to whom they opened their home on Thanksgiving.

“There were foreign students on campus, and the American students would disappear over the holiday weekend. The faculty would take turns hosting dinners for the students the Saturday before Thanksgiving,” Jack says. “Then we wound up hosting it for 29 years.” Over the years the gathering morphed into a hungry crowd of over 200.

“One year, I made 13 turkeys to feed them,” Jack says. “I cooked them all on Thanksgiving Day on Weber barbecues.”

Their love for students also took the form of gifts to the university’s scholarship funds. First, they gave to the College of Engineering and, after retirement, through the Pace Setters — the official organization for retired faculty and staff. Seeing the good their gifts did, they decided to include Cal Poly Pomona in their estate planning.

“We have a substantial estate,” Jack says. “We split it down the middle. Mary gives her half away to whomever she wants, and I give my half away.”

Jack is donating the majority of his share toward scholarships for Cal Poly Pomona students; Mary is establishing a scholarship in the College of Science, targeting students who are math majors and, like herself, passionate about teaching.

Jack sums up their motivation to give so generously in a single sentence.

“We wanted to leave a legacy — and from the beginning, Cal Poly felt like home.”