The day had come to open Wallace O’Neal Day School for students. Over the summer months, the office at First Union Bank was busy with enrollment testing for students and hiring of teachers. Many publications have a variety of numbers for the quantity of students enrolled that first year. The quantity stated the most is 35. Everything was in place, except for one large item – a building. Mobile units to place on the acreage donated to the School by Mrs. Mary Elaine Meyer O’Neal had not yet arrived.
The founding parents were already poised for speculation. No one thought a school of any credibility could be established and opened in only eight months. Second, it was 1971 when desegregation was still new and many private schools were established mostly to escape integration. O’Neal can’t deny the year and the stigma, but the founding parents were determined to open school in September of 1971 with a diverse Board of Trustees and student enrollment. For eight months they covered one hurdle after another. When there were no buildings to hold school, the Campbell House stepped forward and offered their space as a temporary place to have classes.
The scene was set – 35 students in grades 4-6 with three teachers, a headmaster and administrative assistant started school on Tuesday, September 7th, the day after Labor Day, at the Campbell House.
Sandy Rea was hired to teach math at O’Neal. A Pittsburgh, PA native, Sandy graduated from Princeton University and was a teaching fellow at the International College in Beirut. Before coming to O’Neal, he taught fourth grade in Winchester, Mass. In preparation for his teaching position at O’Neal, Sandy enrolled himself into three summer institutes – two for elementary mathematics and one to learn a new science program to be initiated at O’Neal.
Gina Bikales was from Kansas and received her degree in language arts education from the University of Kansas. She taught English at Pembroke Country Day School in Kansas City, Missouri and was also instructor and director of drama at Camellot Academy, a summer fine arts camp. At O’Neal, Gina assumed the position teaching language arts as well as the fine arts coordinator for the School.
Alice Robbins joined O’Neal to teach reading, creative writing and social science. A Sweet Briar College graduate, Alice taught high school in Richmond, Virginia for two years before returning to her home in Raleigh to work as a feature writer for the News and Observer. She continued graduate studies at NC State University for elementary reading.
Bob Haarlow recently reported that among the four of them, they had a combined total of nine years of teaching experience. They were all in their early 20’s with Bob being the oldest at 27.
Mary Fitchett was the administrative assistant and notably the photographer as her name takes the byline for many of the photographs published in the newspaper during those early years.
For three weeks the Campbell House was home for The Wallace O’Neal Day School.
Bob Haarlow shares some student/teacher recollections, “I remember having most classes outside under the trees and on the porch. So Nice. The teachers weren’t like teachers; they were more like really good friends. It wasn’t like “real school.” It was so much better, we were a big family. Everybody got along.”
Elizabeth Taylor Webster ’79, then 10 years old, reflects, “I do remember classes upstairs and recess running through the big field at the Campbell House.”
Sandy Rea recalls, “I remember how the windows rattled when the Fort Bragg army practice was exploding shells on the near edge of the Ft. Bragg compound and the summer before moving into the Campbell House at the bank in Southern Pines where I met lots of people and Eddie Williams’ mother brought in peaches bigger than softballs. We were all excited of course, about the courtyard on Airport Road where the trailers were going to go. And we waited wanting to know every bit of news about when the trailers would arrive.”
On account of issues stemming from the COVID pandemic, our central campus, which was to have been completed before school started, is just beginning construction. Much like the arrival of the trailers, we too wait with excitement. In addition, at the Campbell House, many classes were held outside under the trees. Presently, O’Neal has revisited the outdoor learning concept a great deal over the past two years for COVID mitigation. So much has changed in 50 years, and yet the similarities peek through, even the parental gift of fresh peaches.
Falcons Fly to 50
O’Neal is excited to share its history with readers as it quickly nears its 50th year in educating and cultivating youth in becoming successful, effective contributors to communities large and small. The official celebration starts school year 2021/2022. This weekly blog will focus on different aspects of the School as it grew through the years. With every entry, there is just as much more information to gather than what is already written. Readers who have been a part of the O’Neal community are encouraged to reach out and share their O’Neal memories. It is with great hope that the efforts of many in contributing information and photography can be published into a book for reflection and reference as the School continues to prosper for the next 50 years.
Please send your memoirs and photos to:
The O’Neal School
c/o Kathy Taylor, Director of Communications
P.O. Box 290
Southern Pines, NC 28388