True Friend, Amazing Leader, Consummate Visionary, and Generous Public Servant

Some of you knew Brian as the General Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks, or as a powerful voice within many Bay Area conservation organizations. Some knew Brian as a tireless environmental visionary and innovator. Some knew Brian as a highly acclaimed National Park Service leader and an outstanding role model for park executives the world over.

But no matter the context or relationship, whether you knew him for many years or met him only briefly, the impression Brian left was instantaneous and lasting. And it did not take long to realize his impact—on the people and parklands he loved so deeply—is indelible. Brian is as beloved as the Golden Gate National Parks he built.

As the executive director of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, I write as someone who worked closely with Brian for three decades. Our friendship is long and deep. And our commitment to this park and the people who care for it is equally deep—and something we share with all who celebrate Brian’s memory.

Many people saw Brian as a park maker with an inspired vision. And the Golden Gate National Parks constitute his masterpiece. Everywhere you turn in this national park—Crissy Field, Alcatraz, Fort Baker, the Presidio, and more—we see his amazing handiwork. But he was much more than a park maker; he really was, at the core, a community builder.

He intrinsically knew that any aspiration, any special place, any worthy program—needs a community of people loyal to the vision and committed to one another and their common purpose. Few national parks can match the outpouring of volunteers, donors, members, or visitors who have been inspired by Brian or served by his dedicated National Park staff. Within the National Park Service, at the Parks Conservancy, and through his many pursuits across the country and around the world, Brian gathered special communities of people who shared his vision—people who took such joy in their collective accomplishment and in one another’s company.

Brian described his role as a “friend-raiser” for the Golden Gate National Parks. And he did some amazing friend-raising. I can think of almost 30 distinct circles of friends and communities of people that Brian touched deeply. Those communities range from one end of the Golden Gate National Parks to the other; from northern Marin to southern San Mateo County; from San Francisco to the over 390 national park sites across America; from city halls to houses of Congress; from youth environmental leaders to acclaimed conservationists; from the Bay Area to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and points beyond.

And it is so clear why these friendships spanned the globe. Brian’s zest, exuberance, and charisma were legendary. He always saw the best in any situation, in any person, in any challenge. He gave from the heart and led with enthusiasm and humor.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, we have some simple, straightforward things to do that were in Brian’s sincere nature. We must remain kind and supportive to one another as we grieve for this amazing person; and we must remain true to Brian’s strong values that now are embedded in the Golden Gate National Parks—a collection of national park sites that expresses so beautifully his most robust, exuberant, caring, and heartfelt qualities.

That is an enduring thing we can do for Brian and for the great national parks at the Golden Gate. We will treasure these special places in his memory and hold them—his legacy—even more dearly.

Brian is as cherished as our national parks, as treasured as our historic landmarks, and as timeless as the beauty of the fog coming through the Golden Gate to Crissy Field. We will miss him deeply, but know that his spirit is with us. I look forward to seeing all of you, his special friends, out in the national parks. Brian would be very happy knowing that we were enjoying the place he helped create for everyone.


Greg Moore
Executive Director
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Celebration of Brian O’Neill’s Life

On May 29, the family of Brian O’Neill, the National Park Service, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy gathered with Brian's friends and colleagues to celebrate his life, his legacy, and his work as General Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks. To view a video of the event, click here.

A Celebration of Brian O’Neill’s Life (1941 - 2009)
General Superintendent, Golden Gate National Parks (1986 - 2009) Read more...

Friday, May 15, 2009

Memories of Brian from his Twin Brother Alan

As Brian's twin brother, I would like to share some personal experiences. Before I do, I would like to point out how parallel both our personal and professional lives have been. We went to the same schools, majored in the same subjects in College, joined the same fraternity, co-operated all our business ventures through college, and worked in the same agencies in our professional careers. The only exception to that is Brian worked for a brief period with the U.S. Geological Services directly out of college. We always had similar jobs at similar grades until I retired from the National Park Service in 2000 to form a non-profit conservation organization called the Outside Las Vegas Foundation. You might conclude that we were hooked at the hip.

One of my first childhood recollections is the language Brian and I developed to communicate so no one else knew what we were talking about. I believe we were almost four years old when we first rolled this language out and it became more sophisticated as we entered kindergarten. It was a form of pig Latin but distinctly our own. I believe this is the reason they placed Brian and I into remedial classes in the first and second grade. We were behind everyone else because we were having so much fun with our own language. To us, it was a game and gave us a sense of independence. It was pretty obvious to all that we were a hand full. Therefore, they would never place us in the same classroom. I suppose my brother and I today would be classified as attention deficit in our early years.

In elementary school, you really could not tell the two of us apart. My mother seemed to be the only one that would get us right. My father frequently missed the mark. We used this to our advantage. In the third and fourth grades, we would exchange classrooms for a week at a time. We did this about every two months. We pulled this off for over a year until we were finally caught and expelled from school for a period.

One of the really great things about being a twin is that you always had a playmate. We didn't fight much because that would result in losing a playmate. In sports over the years, we had almost identical batting averages or average points scored. Also, our grade point average in school over the years was almost identical. This is a bit unusual because often in twins, there is one that is a little more dominant.

My mother has always had a love affair with the American West, especially those places that make up our nation's National Park System. She has a special connection to the spirit of the west - the freedom, expansiveness, frontier mentality, and the endless horizons. It seemed like the west was always calling her to come, explore and experience. I believe Brian and I were probably no older than four when she corralled us in a station wagon for our first trip to the Rocky Mountain West. This became a routine we did about every other year as kids.

When I reflect back on those trips I am in awe of what my mother actually did. These were not short trips. They were generally three weeks or longer. My dad was not much for camping so would occasionally meet up with us somewhere along the way and spend several days. My mother not only had to do all the driving but had to set up camp and do all the cooking. As young boys, we were too busy exploring the camp surroundings to be of much help. Also, the roads back in the late 1940's and early 50's were not like the roads today. This, however, didn't deter my mother from taking the harrowing mountain passes of the Rockies, Cascades and Sierras. The most frightening pass I remember was over the Bighorn Mountains in North Central Wyoming. I recall Brian and me getting out of the car to walk a section as we were scarred to be in the car driving because of the sheer drop-off of several thousand feet.

Because we didn't have a lot of disposable income back in the early years, we camped 95% of the time on the western trips. We were always trying to stretch the budget to stay a few extra days. I remember one time we didn't quite stretch things enough and landed up broke in Ohio with some 10 hours of driving left plus gas and food to buy. We ended up collecting soda bottles along the highway and turned them in for the deposit which allowed us to recoup just enough money to make it home. Rather than being exercised about the whole situation, my mother took it in stride and treated it as another experience for her memory bank.

My mother always jokes that Brian and I insisted every trip west had to go through Yellowstone. We had a fascination with the bears and wildlife and in those days the bears lined the roads for all to see and enjoy. We have come to understand that that was not good. I remember clearly a time when Brian and I were around 7 or 8 years old camping in Yellowstone and attending one of the campfire programs. This particular program was on bears. We were so enthralled with the program that we declared to our mom after the program that we were going to work for the National Park Service and be the Director or Secretary of the Interior one day.

Brian and I always had little businesses together. We wanted to have our own revenue source, especially to buy clothes. We were clothes horses as early as seven years old. My mother kept insisting that if we were going to buy all these clothes, we needed to start cleaning and ironing them as well. So, we became pretty good at washing and ironing. Those that know Brian well will tell you that he ironed most of his clothes. The only things he sent to the cleaners were his suits and dress pants. He ironed all his shirts and even his tee-shirts if you believe that.

Our first business was making potholders out of jersey loops. There was a frame that was used to weave the jersey loops. I remember selling them for 15 cents each or two for a quarter. We made hundreds and walked around the neighborhood selling them. We would keep an inventory of around 50 potholders so that our customers had a choice of colors and patterns. They were popular items and we never had trouble selling them. Our second business was picking wild blackberries down at Scientists Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay. My parents and grandparents bought two waterfront lots there in 1946 for $1,500 and $1,800. We built a log cabin for $2,500 and this is where we spent most weekends and summers growing up, except when we were on our western trips. We would pick blackberries for four or five hours at a time. We knew where the best blackberry patches were and kept this a secret. We sold them for 40 cents a quart. You talk about ticks. We would come home covered with ticks and had to shower immediately.

We next got into the lawn and yard maintenance business as well as window washing and house painting. We had quite a business going with dozens of regular clients at Scientists Cliffs. We made good money at this and were not tied down to a set schedule. This allowed us to take the western trips. We bought our first boat and car with the money we made. Our first car was a Volkswagen Beetle. We shared the driving time and would often double date in that little car. I won't comment on whether we ever switched dates because we agreed never to tell.

Our next business venture was the formation of our own travel company. This was back in 1963 when we were in college at the University of Maryland. We had gone on several summer trips to the west with our high school geography/history teacher. We wanted to offer the opportunity for more students to receive the incredible experience that we did with the trips Phil Jones led. My mother was supportive of what we wanted to do and agreed to serve as President of our "Educational Tours, Inc." Brian and I served as the two Vice-Presidents. We ran very successful summer tours for several years.

We took high school and college kids on camping trips out west. The trips were between 30-45 kids and about five weeks long. We always chartered a Trailways bus and the same driver but took the bus to places where the normal chartered buses feared to go. It wasn't about making money to us; it was about experience and seeing how kids were changed by the exposure to nature. Educating the kids about the special places we visited was our primary motivation. It was natural that my brother and I ended up in conservation work given the experiences we had growing up.

Holidays were very important occasions for our extended family and we celebrate them with great enthusiasm. As a child, I remember the Christmas cookie making parties, Easter eggs coloring parties, and Halloween costume making parties. The house and yard were always appropriately decorated to reflect the occasion and most of the decorations were hand made in the early days.

Christmas is the most special holiday for our family and we always try to gather as an extended family. The family mostly gathers at my mother's house in Scientists Cliffs on the Chesapeake Bay but I have fond memories as well of Christmases in Denver, Glacier National Park and Lake Tahoe. We spend four Christmases at Glacier and Brian would drive all the way from San Francisco in a small Ford Bronco with four people, two dogs, and all the Christmas presents. He rented a U-haul trailer to carry the suit cases and this became quite tricky in the snow. One year, I remember that it started snowing the day Brian arrived and snowed almost non-stop until the day he left. We had almost six feet of snow fall during that time. Brian and I spent the Christmas Holidays together 66 our of our 67 years. This is quite unusual in families today and something we take great pride in.

Brian had two critical roles at Christmas. In the last ten years, he was responsible for decorating my mon's house. This was not an easy task. He would fly back to Maryland in early December and take an entire three day weekend to decorate and prepare the house for our family gathering. Those of you that know my mother, know how much decorating this entailed. She has somewhere around 200 Santa Clauses of all sizes, styles and materials. One of the games we played with the kids over the years was to count the Santa Clauses. These were always very joyous times.

Brian's other role was making breakfast. Nobody dared to intrude in the kitchen when he was making breakfast. That was his domain. He is famous for his home-made biscuits, country gravey and frittata. We all added extra pounds at Christmas. Another tradition that we had for years was the annual ski trip. These ski trips were with college fraternity brothers and their spouses. When we lived back East, we went to Vermont each year, usually to Stowe. Wow, could it ever get cold there. I remember them providing wool pounchos on the cold days that you would throw over your head for the ride up the chair lift. When my family moved to Denver, our ski trip shifted to the west and we went to Aspen for 10 straight years. We had six couples that made that trip together. We would first gather at our house and then drive up to Aspen. Brian would drive up from Albuquerque when he lived there or from San Francisco when he moved there. These were always great times. Towards the end of the 1970's the six couples started bringing the kids as well. This got to be a large undertaking but we have incredibly fond memories of those ski trips.

Some of the best times we ever had were when Brian and his family lived in Albuquerque and my family lived in Denver. We both worked for the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation at the time which later became the Heritage conservation and Recreation Service. Our two offices would have an annual three-day ski weekend and would meet in Crested Butte, Colorado. During the Saturday night of the weekend, each office would put together a skit along the lines of Saturday Night Live. The Albuquerque Office always had the best skits. I remember the last year when we were determined to outdo the Albuquerque Office and practiced for months on our skit, only to have to cancel the ski trip that year for poor snow conditions.

During this time, I also have great memories of the summer camping trips we would take in Colorado. My parents would meet our families and we would go down to the San Juan Mountains for a week camping trip. We had some harrowing experiences on the jeep trails there.

Although Brian and I are competitive by nature, we were never competitive with each other. We were always excited when something good happened to the other twin. I don't ever remember us being jealous of each other. I take enormous pride in Brian's accomplishments. He was a hero to me as well. He worked hard and created an enormous legacy. Barbara and I took time last week while visiting Brian in the hospital to experience the Golden Gate National Parks and to see the incredible transformation of place that has taken place. I have followed his projects and initiatives and was awed by what had been accomplished. The most telling result was to see the numbers of people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds out enjoying the parks and engaged in a wide variety of activities. I can't tell you how healing it was to see these projets first-hand. Parks are about community and connecting people in meaningful ways to their natural and cultural heritage. Brian and his staff and the Conservancy have developed a model that is the envy of the world.

I can't tell you how much joy we had in being at the hospital last week in San Francisco. It was a time that we could care for Brian. It was a very tender time as Brian allowed us to massage him, rub his head and tend to his needs. This was a little rare for him because he always wanted to help others and was reluctant to accept help himself. We played cards and yatzee and talked about family and his contribution. We told him how much we loved him and what a difference he made to the well-being of the planet. He and I got to share some private moments that I will never forget. We talked soul to soul and had several good cries together. I believe our family was divinely given this window to say goodbye. We didn't realize at the time that it was closure, but it was.

Brian, through his leadership, passion and gregarious personality has left a beautiful legacy. I think it is important that we call these areas the Golden Gate National Parks. For they do represent what is best about the California urban landscape and its colorful history. My hope is that Congress will one day officially change the name from Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Golden Gate National Parks. This would truly honor the work that Brian has done.

Brian leaves behind a truly remarkable family. His wife Marti is an amazingly beautiful human being who overcame her own health challenge with life threatening cancer in the early 1980's. Her fight and recovery is the story for a great book. We all admire her courage and compassion. Kim, his daughter, is one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever met. She is so smart and so wise and so kind and thoughtful. And his son Brent, what an incredibly kind and sensitive person. He is also very wise and has a wonderfully peaceful soul. We all voted him father of the decade. He and his wife Anne, carry on the National Park Service tradition for Brian's side of our family. They both work for the National Park Service in the National Capital Region. Brian also has three wonderful grandchildren, Justin, Kieran and Sean. They are a delight to our extended family. Our mother, Mimi, is still alive and going strong at 97. She has always been the leader of the pack and the inspiration for our family. They truly broke the mold when she arrived on the planet. Her legacy is legendary.

Alan O’Neill
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Thursday, May 14, 2009

Share Your Memories

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