His voicemail is still on my cell phone from a couple of months ago.
“Hello Mike, Paul O’Neill here. It’s been a while,” it starts. “Hey, I’ve got a couple of extra tickets for a game today (Sunday) at the Diamondbacks stadium, a 5:10 game. Give me a call on my cell phone if you’re available, man. And if you are, our family is going, and you know some of us already and it’ll be fun. Let me know. Talk to you soon.”
I couldn’t make the game. I happened to be in San Diego that weekend visiting friends.
Paul, a former longtime photographer for the East Valley Tribune from 1984 to 2008 died from a massive heart attack in the recovery room at St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix last Friday, Oct. 5. It was the second time in a year Paul was having brain surgery to remove a tumor, and the second time he suffered a heart attack afterward.
I last spoke to Paul about two months ago, during the week after I returned from San Diego. We had talked about getting together in the next couple of weeks ahead — possibly getting a few people together to go see a cheap movie at nearby Pollack Cinema or for me to come over to his house to pick up a box of his photo negatives he took of years during spring training in Arizona. I had planned to pick them up so I could give them to the Mesa Historical Museum’s spring training history research project.
Being busy with work and getting caught up in my everyday life, those events never happened with Paul, either.
Time marches on, and marches on way too fast when we don’t slow down, count our blessings and make things matter with people who have made a difference in our lives without having a chance to thank them.
Friends like Paul O’Neill.
Little did I know that when I spoke to Paul over the phone at that time, it would be the last.
During these times when people mostly communicate through emails, text messaging and social media instead of making a simple phone call to hear a familiar and friendly voice on the other line or get together for a cup of coffee or a drink, Paul was one of the few who was quick to answer the phone and actually talk. I loved to hear him bust out in laughter, something he often did in the newsroom when talking to colleagues, a sound I dearly miss.
In fact, that’s how I had learned about Paul’s death — after logging into Facebook on a Saturday afternoon (when I should’ve been doing other things that mattered more), I saw all the chatter, the hundreds of comments from Paul’s friends and his former Tribune colleagues expressing condolences for his sudden passing. They were fondly remembering Paul, who was passionate about his work as a photographer and videographer.
One of Paul’s trademarks was sneaking photographs of reporters interviewing subjects either in their living rooms or on the street. One time about four or five years ago, Paul showed me a picture he snuck of me interviewing a woman stretching a peek over the wall in her backyard looking toward a Horizon High School bus crash on Greenway Road in northeast Phoenix.
I expressed angst at the picture because it showed me from a point of view that made me look pretty chubby (which I was). Paul just giggled.
But that photo also helped make me realize that I need to take the time to get my butt in the gym and improve my physical health, which I eventually did. That’s one of the other things I wish I would have thanked Paul for, but I never did.
Paul had been on my mind that Saturday before I went online. I thought his surgery was going to be on Saturday — not Friday — and even though I should have called him in the days leading up to his surgery, he and his family definitely were in my thoughts and prayers.
Just a little more than two years ago, I lost John Leptich, my best friend and former colleague at the Tribune, who died from bone marrow cancer at age 60, on July 5, 2010. John, who proudly hailed from Chicago, and had a penchant for pizza (he could eat it everyday) and was like a big brother to me as we shared so much in common.
We shared our passion for journalism and writing good stories after interviewing interesting people. We shared our love of baseball and our passion for collecting baseball memorabilia and meeting the former players we remembered seeing play the game.
Shortly after I arrived in Arizona from Ohio to start my job at the Tribune in January 2006, John befriended me, took me under his wing and often had me over to his house during the holidays when I did not return to Ohio.
Paul did the same thing.
Paul was my best friend on the photography team, and I had the pleasure of sharing a couple of Thanksgiving and Easter meals at his house with his family. They were always enjoyable times and relaxing, as we played games and watched football while sipping wine or beer — a throwback to simpler times which we don’t seem to do often enough, especially me.
At the age of 45, I know I need to slow down, count my blessings and take time to better appreciate the good things that come my way.
Time is marching on way too fast and I well know, I need to do a much better job of making things matter, not just for me, but for the people who made a difference in my life as well.
Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org