A Granddaughter's Reflections of George Thomas O'Neal

Men playing pool in the Michigan Union Billiards Room

Carol O'Neal Sherry

In 1973, Carol O'Neal Sherry (A.B. Ed 1977, MBA 1984) was an 18-year-old freshman at U-M. Her grandfather, George Thomas O'Neal worked at the U-M Billiards Room, where he was a charismatic staff member, known to many visitors to the Michigan Union.

These are her reflections on her grandfather.

"George Thomas O'Neal was born in 1890 in Pellston, MI, and grew up on a farm near the Mackinaw straits. From 1908 until the Depression his family operated a hotel in Petoskey. During George's long evenings at the hotel's front desk, Ernest Hemingway stopped by often to chat, and later sent postcards from abroad.

My grandfather began working at the Michigan Union in 1932, working in the storeroom of its large and busy food service operation. During the 30s, 40s and 50s there were only a limited number of hotels and restaurants in Ann Arbor, so the Union provided lodging and meals to many visitors. Many students had rooms with local families but took their meals at the Union. The University Club in the Union was always busy with faculty dining and activities. The large and small Union ballrooms hosted many events, including my parents' wedding reception in 1951. My grandfather's hotel experience, coupled with his service in the Quartermaster Corp during WWI, helped him to keep the Union kitchens well supplied.

For many years George worked a split shift, half morning, half early evening. He'd walk a block home to my grandparents' house on Division for midday, and then walk back to work in the late afternoon. He always felt very fortunate to have been hired during the Depression. With his 9th grade education, he had a tremendous respect for the University and wanted us 5 grandkids to know of the important role that the Union played on campus and in Ann Arbor. He was proud to be part of the team that kept the Union running smoothly.

In the 60s, Grandpa loved to take us children to work and introduce us to people he knew all over the Union. We were fascinated by the idea of a swimming pool, a barber shop, and a bowling alley in the basement. We saw the storeroom (huge cans of peaches!) and were treated to ice cream or the dessert of our choice in the cafeteria. I remember being presented with radishes beautifully carved into roses by one of Grandpa's many friends in the kitchen. He spoke often of the Union helping to feed World War II soldiers in training, and of the years it hosted the training table for the U-M football team. He enjoyed pointing out that until 1956 women could only enter the Union by the side door and with a male escort. Grandpa retired from the store room in 1964, but after less than a year, he came back to the Union to work part time in the Billiard Room.

When I came to campus as a freshman in 1973, the Union was no longer as central to campus life and had lost a lot of its former bustle and elegance, but it was always a pleasure to be in that grand old building with its waxed stone floors, leaded glass, and wood paneling. I loved the Billiard Room in particular, and not just because Grandpa was at the front desk. The late afternoon light, the airy high ceilings, the clicking of the balls and sticks and a study break hearing old stories were a pleasing combination.

Grandpa related to people of all ages and backgrounds, so it was the perfect job for him. His expressions and stories painted vivid pictures of previous times. He could recall passages from his childhood McGuffy Readers. He could mimic the tone of the conductors on the GR and I train as they recited the route through west Michigan towns up to Petoskey. He described his father's remark after reading the newspaper account of the Wright brothers' first flight: "It'll never amount to anything". He was very open to the long hairstyles of the seventies-he'd seen enough styles come and go. When he predicted that men would soon return to Butch cuts I remember telling him there was no way that would ever happen, but of course he was right!

It was fun to bring along a friend or roommate-no one else I knew could visit their grandfather on campus. Occasionally I saw my siblings Tom and Martha visiting as well. He loved introducing us to his buddies among the regulars, an interesting and eclectic group. Still mostly a male domain (women had been allowed in to the Billiard Room only since 1968) there was always a standing offer of free billiard lessons. I wish now that I had not been too shy to take them up on their offers.

Grandpa was honored to know Dr. William Stegath (of the U-M Alumni Association whose offices were in the Union.) Despite Bill's busy schedule, he always made time to say hello. His kindness, wit, devotion to the University, and amazing memory for people and their stories meant that he never knew a stranger. Bill shared with George a common interest in Northern Michigan history. He interviewed Grandpa about his memories of Ernest Hemingway and wrote an article for the Alumni magazine. Bill suggested I apply for a summer job at CampMichigania, so I'll be forever grateful to Grandpa and Bill for my two idyllic summers on Walloon Lake.

We were fortunate to have extra time with Grandpa while we were old enough to remember some of his stories and to understand their importance. As busy college students, most of my friends seldom saw their grandparents and many had already lost them. Grandpa reluctantly retired from the Billiard Room in the late 70s but only after his eyes started to fail. He died in 1986 at age 96."