‘Grace and dignity’: Former UVA president Robert O’Neil remembered as constitutional icon

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Robert O’Neil was president of UVA from 1985 to 1990 and a renowned constitutional scholar. 
Michael Bailey Robert O’Neil was president of UVA from 1985 to 1990 and a renowned constitutional scholar. Michael Bailey

It’s no surprise that Robert O’Neil, the University of Virginia’s sixth president, who died September 30, leaves behind an accomplished life, particularly in constitutional law. But what friends keep mentioning is his generosity, kindness, and concern for others—something that was reflected in his efforts to open the university to more diversity during his term in office.

A prominent defender of the First Amendment, especially free speech and freedom of religion, O’Neil founded the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in 1990. The nonprofit organization defends First Amendment rights and annually gives out “Jefferson Muzzles” to call out “especially egregious or ridiculous affronts to free expression.”

UVA President Jim Ryan said O’Neil was a friend and mentor to him at the university’s law school, where they were colleagues. “I’ll never forget and always appreciate the great kindness he showed to me when I was just starting my career,” Ryan told UVA Today.

Boston born and Harvard educated, O’Neil came to Charlottesville in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin, where he served as president. He was UVA’s first president with no Southern ties.

His five-year tenure was short by UVA standards, and in 2012, he described to this reporter the Board of Visitors’ desire for change and the orderly transition of his departure—in sharp contrast to that year’s abrupt ouster of Teresa Sullivan, who was subsequently reinstated.

Although issues with the board arose during his first year, O’Neil said, “Both my coming and going were very smooth.”

UVA law professor Dick Howard, author of Virginia’s Constitution, met O’Neil in the early ’60s when they were both Supreme Court clerks—O’Neil for Justice William Brennan and Howard for Justice Hugo Black. “He really stood out,” says Howard. “I had enormous respect for him.”

O’Neil’s arrival at UVA in 1985 came during a time of transition, when it was still perceived as a place of privilege for students from comfortable backgrounds, says Howard. O’Neil took steps toward diversity. “He cared about the university being an open forum for people of other races and ethnic and religious backgrounds,” says Howard.

On a personal level, Howard says, “I admired his kindness, his humility, his sense of self. I never saw him posture or preen.”

O’Neil continued to teach constitutional law throughout his administrative careers. Josh Wheeler, who succeeded O’Neil as director of the Thomas Jefferson Center, first met him when he took his Freedom of Speech and Press course as a law student. “One aspect of his character that really defined everything he did was his generosity, particularly with his students,” but also everyone who sought his input on the First Amendment, says Wheeler.

The Thomas Jefferson Center was a “tremendous part of his legacy,” says Wheeler. “The center was Bob O’Neil. I feel privileged to have worked with him for 19 of the 21 years he was at the center.”

During that time, O’Neil established himself as one of the most respected defenders of free speech, says Wheeler, and the center weighed in on close to 200 cases. “Having his name on the brief immediately commanded the respect of other jurists.”

Howard agrees that O’Neil left his mark on free speech, open society, and religious freedom. “He was enormously respected throughout the country for constitutional law,” Howard says. But his character garnered respect as well.

“Grace and dignity were two of his prime qualities,” observes Howard. “For someone in a high position, that’s often a rarity.”

O’Neil, 83, died in his Washington, D.C., home surrounded by his wife of 51 years, Karen, and their four children. His family will hold a memorial  November 18 at the Cosmos Club in Washington.

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