Former UVA President, First Amendment Advocate Bob O'Neil Retires

Sandy Hausman
Virginia Public Radio

Bob O'Neil, founder of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, was a graduate of Harvard Law School, a Rhodes Scholar, and President of the University of Virginia before he spent the past two decades working in defense of the First Amendment. Now that he's decided to retire, O'Neil's friends and colleagues are pausing to remember his work -- and place bets on whether he'll actually be able to slow down.

Higher education in his blood

O’Neil grew up in Cambridge, Mass., the son of a faculty member at Harvard. He got undergraduate and law degrees there, before taking academic jobs in California, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and the University of Virginia. O'Neil's longtime assistant, Sandy Gillem, remembers the day he was officially selected to be president of the university.

The university has some odd traditions, one of them being that the newly selected president is offered the position by a benevolent group called the Society of the Purple Shadows, who appear dressed in purples robs, masks and all. 

"Bob was in the middle of his remarks when the Shadows appeared, and what they were doing was bringing him a letter welcoming him to the university," he says. "But I can remember the expression on their faces for the rest of my life. They had never lived in the south before, and they thought, 'My Lord! The Klan has arrived!'"

The O’Neils soon discovered that Charlottesville was a civilized place. Bob made friends quickly, and he wanted everyone at the party.

“He took diversity very seriously, and tremendous strides had been made, but Bob O’Neil pushed it," Gillem says.

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