Remembering Cothburn O'Neal
Multitalented professor was believed to be University's oldest alumnus
Writer, inventor, teacher, musician, aviator, critic, chef, public lecturer, master gambler-Cothburn O'Neal was a 20th-century Renaissance man.
He wrote eight novels and numerous scholarly articles, patented a voting machine, taught high school and college students for almost 40 years, played clarinet, saxophone and oboe, composed music, flew naval aircraft during World War II, served as literary critic for the Dallas Times-Herald and was recognized as a gourmet chef. Reminds one of Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo.
"He was a genius," former Student Publications Director Dorothy Estes said.
Before he died in July, less than a month short of his 94th birthday, Dr. O'Neal was believed to be the University's oldest living graduate. He came to North Texas Agricultural College (now UTA) in 1923 as a student. He completed his associate's degree in 1925 and went on to earn a bachelor's degree from Trinity University in San Antonio and a master's and Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.
He returned to UTA in 1938 and, except for a tour of duty as a fighter pilot in the Pacific, remained until his retirement in 1972. In 1953 he was elected to the Texas Institute of Letters, and in 1966 he received the Piper Distinguished Professor Award as one of the 10 most outstanding professors in Texas.
"I studied language the way a doctor would study anatomy," he said in a 1995 interview. "I wanted my students to be able to use language accurately, precisely and well--and if possible, creatively. We need someone to hold onto it."
Dr. O'Neal twice served as acting chair of the English Department and headed the fine arts area from 1956 to 1960, but he preferred writing, teaching and making music to day-to-day administrative duties.
For years, he played with the Fort Worth City Band and was usually its oldest member. He also loved playing in area dance bands, but he shrugged off an amazing feat--the ability to play two clarinets simultaneously.
"Anybody can do it," he said. "If you can play one clarinet, you can play two." During part of his musical career, he performed on the local vaudeville circuit under the name Teddy Joy.
"Cothburn didn't consciously try to be a character, but he was one," fellow English Professor Emory Estes recalled. "He looked like something out of the movies, and he played the role to the hilt. He was terribly histrionic."
Terribly confident, too. For Cothburn O'Neal, landing a fighter plane on an aircraft carrier was no big deal. Having his first novel published elicited a similar non-reaction.
"Let's face it," he said in 1995. "I was cocky enough that I expected it."
Dr. O'Neal's novels included The Dark Lady, set in Shakespeare's England with a female central character, Roseline, as the true genius behind the Bard of Avon.
Honored by the University as a Distinguished Alumnus and inducted into the Military Science Hall of Honor, Dr. O'Neal reciprocated by establishing a scholarship through the Alumni Association in 1999 for English and military science students.
"I have a fondness for the school," he once said. "You know, it's always everyone's ambition to teach at his alma mater."
Cothburn O'Neal, the Renaissance man, fulfilled that ambition--and many others.