By Ruth Ann Ruiz
The Post Newspaper Features Editor
Chatting with strangers is a quality that David O’Neal acquired at a very young age. He was elected friendliest boy in his senior class. Without a doubt Mr. O’Neal has a very friendly spirit that endures people to want to get to know him and hear what he has to say.
Growing up in Galveston, O’Neal was well known for his superior baseball skills. He recalls playing ball in the various ball parks across the island. What he remembers about his childhood is that outside of school the kids were integrated, everyone played ball together.
Segregation was the rule for public school, and he attended Central High School, Texas’ first Black high school, graduating in 1966. He attended what was considered a state-of-the-art building on Sealy Avenue rather than the historic building on Avenue M.
He remembers his teachers throughout his education in Galveston paid close attention to each of their students guiding them in academics and high expectations for their behavior.
It was a tightknit community back in his childhood. “The teachers knew our parents, in some cases you might have gone to the same church as your schoolteacher,” O’Neal explained.
Throughout his senior year he had recruiters from several Texas Black colleges inviting him to come play ball and get a college degree, but he elected to throw his hat in the ring and enrolled at the University of Houston, where he would be required to tryout to be on the team.
He did not make the team, which caused somewhat of a stir within the Black community and the press. It was thought that he did not make the team because he was black.
“My claim to fame is not that I was the first black baseball player for UofH, but that I was the catalyst for the first Black player,” shared O’Neal. The year after his attempt, a Black player was admitted to the baseball team.
Though he wasn’t playing ball, he stayed on as a student studying Electrical Technology. “I had thought I’d one day work for NASA or Texas Technologies. Then his draft card (Vietnam War) was about to come up and he was in the test-taking mood, so he took a test for the Postal Service.
Well, God was taking charge of his life and brought him back to Galveston, his hometown. He was given an interview with the USPS in Galveston. He was then told to report to work. So, he came home, not as a star athlete but as a humble letter carrier with a smile and his friendly spirit which brought him in continuous contact with the island residents.
If you want to learn the history of your community or any community, sit and listen for a bit with the town’s letter carriers. O’Neal is a wealth of knowledge of the city of Galveston. O’Neal served the people delivering mail for decades. He moved from one route to another getting to know the people on each of his routes.
Dreaming of working for the Post Office was not what O’Neal had done but looking back on his unique position in the community he feels it was God’s plan for his life. He never let go of playing ball.
As an adult he played on numerous teams including in the Mexican American League. He was able to speak with his team-mates in Spanish.
O’Neal learned to speak Spanish because of a very pretty teacher at Goliad Junior High. “Everyone wanted to take Spanish she was a cute lady,” said O’Neal. He continued his Spanish studies for many years, which has given him a linguistic leg up in society.
O’Neal volunteered as a coach and mentor for children in the baseball leagues of Galveston. Through his volunteer work, he was recruited to run for the school board. He has held a position on the Board of Trustees of GISD for 27 years. He continues to volunteer at Rosenberg Library and numerus other venues.
Remembering his childhood, he focuses on the good times he had.
“It was a family concept living in Galveston. There was a sense of sharing and caring. For instance, people who came from the rural parts of the state to visit always brought along some produce to share. And just about everyone went to church; at least 80% of the kids went to church. As a kid, I remember seeing the high schoolers and what they were doing with their plays and band and sports and I’d think I want to do that when I’m in high school,” O’Neal shared.
He recalls the Maypole festivities where there was a king and queen elected from each grade at each school. According to O’Neal there was a role to be played by all the students. Whether it was in drama or sports, or on the chess team, they all had a chance at success. “All the kids had a sense of worth,” shared O’Neal.
O’Neal values education, but he also believes in the whole child and that all children aren’t going to grow up to be leaders. Some children are going to grow up to follow the leaders, and from his perspective we need to do more to prepare students to be the best they can be even if they are following a leader and not leading the charge.
“The concept of making everyone the boss is crazy because we need workers,” said O’Neal. Though his career was mostly as a worker, he took on leadership roles in the community and has grown to be a respected leader and valued Galveston historian.
If you’ve got a minute, sit, and listen to David O’Neal. He’ll share some tales from Galveston’s glory days all the way through to the present. If you need to hear his stories in Spanish, he might be coaxed into speaking his second language.