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52 Ancestors: John Graham O’Neill (1895 – 1979)

Amy Johnson Crow of the Nor Story Too Small genealogy blog suggested a weekly blog theme of ’52 Ancestors’ in her blog post “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.” I decided to take up the challenge of the 52 Ancestors blog theme as a means to prompt me into regularly sharing the stories of my ancestors. So over the course of 2014 I will highlight ancestor, sharing what I know about the person and perhaps more importantly, what I don’t know.

This week I am profiling John Graham O’Neill, my maternal grandfather. It wasn’t wasn’t until he had died that I knew his first name was John as he always went by his middle name of Graham. ‘Granddad’ as I knew him always had personalized Christmas cards printed each year and below the holiday text was his name “J. Graham O’Neill.” When I was younger I wondered what his first name might be and imagined that it must have been something quite terrible in order for him to think using Graham was better.

My grandfather was the first child of William Emmett O’Neill, an insurance salesman, and Margaret Graham. He was born on 26 June 1895 in a house on Claremont Avenue (now Claremont Street) in the Trinity Bellwoods district of Toronto, Ontario. He would be joined in 1896 and 1898 respectively by his sisters Kathleen (who in later years became Sister St. Edwin in the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph) and Avila.

According to my mother, sometime in his younger days, my Grandfather lost his left eye when a dart inadvertently was misthrown. I never asked Granddad about his eye, purely out of politeness. As a result, when other young men and likely many of his friends were enlisting to fight in World War 1, Granddad was left on the sidelines.

My grandfather married my grandmother, Gertrude Ellen Foley, on 23 June 1926. According to a newspaper article from 25 June 1926, their wedding reception was held at the home of my grandmother’s parents. and my grandfather gave his bride a gift of a white gold wristwatch. Following the reception, my grandparents headed off on a honeymoon trip to Rochester, New York, then to Cleveland, Ohio and finally to Detroit Michigan. When they returned home after the trip, they lived in the home they received as a gift from my grandmother’s father (John Foley) at 189 Pickering Street.

J. Graham O’Neill was a sports fan and a raconteur. I loved listening to his stories, hearing about the city of Toronto as my grandfather experienced it at the turn of the 20th century and listening to his anecdotes about the many people he had come to meet and know well. I think to my mother, her father’s stories were too fantastic to be taken seriously but as I researched my grandfather over the years I have only been able uncover evidence that his stories were all based in truth.

Some of my most cherished memories involve my grandfather and sports. He regularly took me to ‘old’ Maple Leaf Stadium to watch the International League Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team games featuring a team that baseball Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson played for and managed. Maple Leaf Stadium, with it’s multi-billboard outfield fence, was located on the shore of Lake Ontario. From the stands, I would watch the game and if we were there over the Labour Day weekend, it was a great venue for watching the annual Canadian National Exhibition air show. I soon learned that if I went to the top row of the stadium, I could look out onto Fort York, the historic site from which soldiers defended Canada so many years earlier.

I also owe some of my love for hockey to my grandfather. You see, my parents really were not hockey fans, so on Saturday night, “Hockey Night in Canada,” I would walk the two houses over to my grandfather’s house and watch the games of my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, winners of multiple Stanley Cups in those days. Granddad always sat in his deep green armchair while I occupied the matching green sofa under the front window. My placement on the sofa was somewhat strategic on my grandfather’s part as he knew that I usually would not be to stay awake until the end of the game, so the sofa became my bed.

I really wish I had taken the time to talk to my grandfather more about the changes he witnessed in his lifetime throughout the 20th century. Most regrettably though I wish I had told him that he was going to be a great-grandfather. My late wife, Karen and I found out in early December 1979 that we were expecting our first child. We decided to wait until Christmas to tell our immediate families. My grandfather passed away a week later on December 10, 1979 before I could tell him the news. I still wish that I had made that telephone call to him to share the news and swear him to secrecy. His first great grandchild that I never got to tell him about was named John Graham, partly in tribute to him.

Even in death, J. Graham O’Neill was making stories to endure when the hearse carrying his remains got separated from the funeral procession and was lost for several long minutes in the streets of Toronto while on the way to Mount Hope Cemetery and my grandfather’s final resting place. He would have loved that and told the story to all who would listen, repeatedly.

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