Pioneer Connection

Written by Teresa Dennard.

...made the love of history kick in!

The love of history was always deep-rooted in the heart of Bill O’Neal. He grew up hearing stories of the real pioneer connections he had on both sides of his family. His grandmother came to Texas in a wagon train in 1881. She was only seven, but old enough to remember the experience. She grew up to be a farm wife and O’Neal’s dad was the youngest of her eight children. “I would beg her to tell me the story about the wagon train,” says O’Neal. “Every time I’d go see a Western movie, there was a covered wagon in it, and I would think about my grandmother.” His great grandfather on his mother’s side was a trail driving cowboy. He drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail in the 1870’s and ‘80’s. He had an uncle whose grandfather was a sheep rancher that killed a cowboy on his ranch in 1889. “Hearing all these stories just made the love of history kick in. You get Texas History in the 4th and 7th grades, so I just ate it up. My folks took me to see the Alamo when I was 10 years old. Wow! I was interested in that sort of thing from day one.”

O’Neal got a library card when he was six years old and was reading Texas History books all the time. He was reading ahead of his age because that’s where the books were that he wanted to read. He yearned to see all the places he read about, but didn’t get a chance until he was in college. He eventually traveled all over the state of Texas, plus visited the other 49 states and that many foreign countries. O’Neal’s first job was coaching football, but it wasn’t long before a friend who was teaching English at Panola College asked him to come for a visit. “He started trying to arrange a job for me. I was single at the time and knew that if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to coaching football. I thought I’d try it for a couple years. That was 42 years ago.”

Teaching history at Panola turned out to be the perfect job for O’Neal. “Being a small college, they kind of let you do anything you want. They let me try all these wacky things and it worked. Then they let me try more.” One of those wacky things was creating a traveling Texas History course for three hours credit. It was the first one ever offered for college credit in the state. “We had a 2,100 mile itinerary and we traveled all over the state in a week’s time. Two of the nights we camped out because the idea was to experience Texas History. It was tremendously successful. Universities came down to find out how we did it.” The class was such a hit that it was offered twice each summer for 20 years. Because of the success, a traveling European history class was created. “They said I had to have 12 people to do it, and I had 62 sign up. Ten year later, I had 75 people.”

During his teaching career at Panola, O’Neal also wrote and published 40 non-fiction books, at least half of which were about Texas History. Some titles include Great Gunfighters of the Wild West, Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters, Lampasas: 1855-1895, The First Thanksgiving: It Happened in Texas!  The “First Thanksgiving” book is a children’s book which tells how the first Thanksgiving actually happened in El Paso, Texas, 23 years before the Pilgrim’s at Plymouth Rock. “It’s a Hispanic story which my daughter, Lynn, translated. She has a degree in Spanish and was teaching 5th grade kids. She translated the book formally and then read it to her kids. They helped her with enough of the ‘slanguage’ that it made sense. It’s a book I’m really proud of.” With the successes of his teaching and writing careers came many accolades. In 2007 he was named “Best Living Non-Fiction Writer” by True West Magazine. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association.

His most recent accomplishment is the appointment as Texas Historian in August, 2012. For a two-year term, O’Neal will travel as the ambassador for Texas history, visiting numerous cities and landmarks across the state. He is the third such historian selected and the only one who was actually sworn in by Governor Rick Perry. “I had lots of family and friends there for the ceremony and I thought Governor Perry would only be able to pop in for 5 minutes. Once he found out my wife, Karon, was an Aggie, they bonded and I didn’t think he was ever going to get around to swearing me in. What a politician he is--he met everyone and called them by their first names. He spent 40 minutes with us and it was a very nice experience.”

To keep a record of his travels and experiences, O’Neal created a blog. “Karon actually does the blog. I write it and she puts it in. We blog about everything I do.” Follow the O’Neal’s travels at www.lonestarhistorian.blogspot.com