A former longtime award-winning East Valley Tribune photographer known for capturing the essence of both extraordinary and ordinary people in portraits – and later telling peoples’ stories through compelling online video – died Friday.
Paul O’Neill, who had worked for the Tribune for 24 years, from 1984 to 2008, died Oct. 5, after suffering a massive heart attack in the recovery room at St. Joseph’s Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. The heart attack occurred while O’Neill was hospitalized and undergoing brain surgery, according to his family.
He was 56.
O’Neill, who had a strong presence out of the newsroom and a quiet one within it except for often busting out in laughter while talking to his colleagues, also was known for sneaking photographs of news reporters interviewing various subjects for stories, either in the living rooms of their homes or on the street.
After his career at the Tribune concluded in 2008, O’Neill later dedicated his time to setting up a bullying prevention website to provide tips at combating bullying among schoolkids.
He most recently was working as a multimedia coordinator at Government Liquidation in Scottsdale, a company that buys surplus from the military and sells it.
It was a job he loved, Paul’s wife, Margo, said on Monday.
Paul also loved his family and often invited colleagues over to his house living here in Arizona without family to share holidays and dinners with.
“He was a kind and gentle man,” an emotional Margo O’Neill said. “He loved his family. He was proud of his children and his grandson, Xander, who is 3. Xander loved ‘Papa.’”
“Paul loved to travel and loved meeting people,” Margo added.
When news spread on Saturday about O’Neill’s death, hundreds of comments quickly filled O’Neill’s Facebook page from friends and former colleagues shocked and saddened by his death, but who fondly remembered him for his talents and the strong people skills he brought to his craft. Those skills included him often intently listening to peoples’ stories as reporters interviewed their subjects. He sometimes wrote short stories on people he photographed and interviewed himself.
Phil Blank wrote on Paul’s Facebook page, “You spent your life making time timeless with your work like this. You are forever in full beautiful color in our hearts. Thank you for being my friend, I am a better person for knowing you.”
Former Tribune writer Shanna Hogan wrote on O’Neill’s FaceBook page, “He always used to turn the camera around and sneak photos of us reporters while we were doing interviews. Most of the time I was making a weird expression trying to back out of the shot that I thought I was spoiling.”
Inside O’Neill’s Phoenix home are numerous framed photographs of his work, including the one he took of Mother Teresa during her visit to Phoenix in 1989 and one of Hall of Fame baseball player Bob Feller pitching in his later years. He also kept a collage of dozens of small portraits in his family room appropriately titled “Paul’s People.”
A graduate from California State University at Long Beach with a bachelor of arts degree in photojournalism, O’Neill also was involved with the group, “Through Each Other’s Eyes,” a collective of photographers who do cultural exchanges with other countries for education purposes. O’Neill had traveled to Japan and Mexico as part of that group.
While serving as a chief photographer, O’Neill hired many other talented photojournalists who spent a long portion of their careers at the Tribune.
Toru Kawana, a former photographer for the Tribune, was hired by O’Neill at the former Mesa Tribune in 1991, said he last spoke to O’Neill on Wednesday.
Kawana, worked for the Tribune for 16 years, until 2007, and currently works as a firefighter for the Scottsdale Fire Department.
“He was my best friend,” Kawana said. “I feel I owe him a lot. I always thank him for the chance of working as a photographer at the Tribune. If it wasn’t for him hiring me, I likely would not have moved to Arizona and later become a firefighter. He was always there for me.
“He was always positive, even when something went wrong,” Kawana added. “Paul was an encouraging leader. If you made a mistake, he always pointed something positive out first before giving his opinion. After that, I always wanted to do better. I always wanted to have a family like Paul’s family.”
Brad Armstrong, former chief photographer for the Tribune, who worked for the newspaper from 1989 to early 2009. Armstrong became O’Neill’s manager and well acquainted with him during a time when photographers still developed their own film in darkrooms during the late 1980s and into the mid-1990s.
“Paul was a great storyteller and he really cared about people,” Armstrong said. “He was truly interested in people and their stories and it was great to witness. He was a consummate journalist who wanted to help people any way he could. He was passionate about his work and fought for his work to get the proper play in the newspaper.
“He always had a sincere interest in cinematography and wanted to make movies as his plan ‘B,’” Armstrong added. “When newspapers started doing video with their stories, I told him that he had an excuse to embrace it.
“He was a good man.”
O’Neill also had a special place in his heart for the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.
He is survived by his wife, Margo, of 23 years, two children, daughter Drew O’Neill (Austin Ashcraft), son Connor, grandson Xander, his mother Thomasine, brother Thomas (Michelle) O’Neill of Woodland Hills, Calif. sisters Mary (Guy) Burnell of Addie, Wash., Carol (Robert) Matranga of Simi Valley, Calif., and Anne O’Neill of Mesa.
Paul was preceded in death by his father, Charles O’Neill and brother, John O’Neill.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 21, inside Carson Ballroom on the third floor of Arizona State University’s historic Old Main Building, 400 E. Tyler Mall in Tempe.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center in Paul’s name. The address for the Southwest Autistic Research and Resource is: 300 North 18th Main Street, Phoenix, Arizona 85006.
Contact writer: (480) 898-6533 or firstname.lastname@example.org