Abby M. O’Neill, TC Trustee Emerita, Passes Away at 89
Teachers College Trustee Emerita Abby M. O’Neill, a passionate advocate of education as the fundamental building block of democratic societies, has passed away at age 89.
“Education is the secret of it all,” said O’Neill when she was named Trustee Emerita in 2014 after concluding nearly a decade of service on TC’s Board. “On the most basic level, knowing how to read and write allows people to know their rights as well as their possibilities. More broadly, without education, people cannot participate in their civic, social or business lives.”
TC President Susan Fuhrman called O’Neill “a model Trustee...steadfast, committed and in great earnest about her responsibilities. Her wisdom and generosity cannot be replaced, but her impact will endure through her love for Teachers College, reflected in her ongoing support of TC’s faculty and students.”
O’Neill served as Chairman of Rockefeller Financial Services and Rockefeller & Company from 1998 to 2004 and Trustee from 1979 to 1998, as well as Trustee of Massachusetts Financial Services Mutual Fund from 1992 to 2003. She also served as Chairman of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, President of Greenacre Foundation and Vice Chairman of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and – for more than 59 years -- Trustee of International House New York, which recently renamed its patio in her honor.
“On the most basic level, knowing how to read and write allows people to know their rights as well as their possibilities. More broadly, without education, people cannot participate in their civic, social or business lives.”
—Abby M. O'Neill
Education was the underlying theme of much of O’Neill’s work. She traveled to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to help those nations rebuild in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her $1 million gift to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation launched a program to help New York teachers incorporate history and civics education into instruction in reading, writing and critical thinking.
O’Neill was the great-granddaughter of one of TC’s earliest Trustees, John D. Rockefeller, who gave the College $500,000 in 1902 for its endowment. “My family and I have been involved in education for many years, so Teachers College was a natural fit for me,” she said upon joining the Board in 2004. “While I was on the Board of International House, I got to know many students, including some from Teachers College, and I saw how TC developed its students into extraordinary teachers. So I was thrilled to join this Board of Trustees.”
A generous benefactor of Teachers College, O’Neill created the George and Abby O’Neill Chair in Economics & Education. She helped recruit subsequent members of TC’s Board. Yet her most enduring legacy is her passionate commitment to supporting New York City teachers, through the Abby M. O’Neill Fellowship, which addresses demand for training in key areas and the need for excellent teachers in underserved communities. When the Fellowships were announced, Fuhrman said that they “speak to the very essence of the TC mission.”
At that same event, others offered heartfelt testimonials to O’Neill’s impact.
“Everyone I ever met through Abby has been first class,” said TC Trustee Nancy Rauch Douzinas, President of the Long Island-based Rauch Foundation. “So when she said to me, ‘You know, you should think about joining Teachers College, because as far as the future of education goes, it would be a great place for you to be’ – well, she was right about that, too.”
Douzinas called O’Neill “a great mentor” who “taught me what a good manager you have to be to be a great leader.”
Thomas Bailey, the current George & Abby O’Neill Professor of Economics and Education and Director of TC’s Community College Research Center, thanked O’Neill for her support. “You’ve given me the opportunity to build, with the help of many of my colleagues, a research program and center devoted to studying community colleges – institutions that provide the opportunity for college education to millions of students who otherwise would have a very difficult time going beyond high school.”
When O’Neill stepped to the podium to acknowledge those tributes, she characteristically directed praise elsewhere, calling Fuhrman “a wonderful leader, not only of TC, but in education worldwide. And that’s important, because Teachers College is really an international institution – and there are teachers from everywhere.”
Abby M. O’Neill is survived by her husband of 67 years, George O’Neill; her six children – George D. O’Neill Jr., Abby O. Caulkins, David M. O’Neill, Catharine O. Broderick, Wendy H. O’Neill and Peter M. O’Neill – and their spouses; her 18 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren; and her cousin, Valerie Wayne, also on TC’s Board, who cherished “her as a mentor and friend.”
Published Wednesday, May 10, 2017