James John O’Neill
James John O’Neill was a kind, quirky and voraciously curious everyman whose life was a pastiche of work, travel, friendships and discovery.
Jim was born December 13, 1946, in Baltimore, Maryland. Growing up, he attended All Saints school, vacationed with his family in the wilderness of western Maryland and delivered the Baltimore Evening Sun. He graduated in 1964 from Milford Mill High School, where he’d been elected class president. He attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, a co-op school which allowed him a mix of classwork and fieldwork. He interned with Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Baruch Blumberg – work that led to Blumberg’s eventual discovery of the Hepatitis B virus. As a student, Jim also sampled water quality in Virginia’s James River and at Kluane Lake in the Yukon Territory and worked for President Lyndon Johnson’s Health, Education and Welfare Department during the time of anti-Vietnam War marches on Washington, after Jim himself had become a conscientious objector.
His student job at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, helping Charles David Keeling’s team measure carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere, left the deepest impression on Jim. That work led Keeling to develop his namesake “Keeling Curve,” predicting the rising CO2 concentrations that are changing the climate – a slow-motion disaster Jim watched for decades as it slowly became today’s crisis.
He graduated from SUNY Stony Brook with a bachelors degree in economics and went on to become a graduate film student at the Annenberg School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Jim later worked for the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.
Jim also worked at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts. In Woods Hole, he also served as verger at Church of the Messiah and started the Hippodrome Film festival for the long dark winters on Cape Cod. He later moved to Boston, where he spent 25 years in the North End and Cambridge, doing jobs ranging from fine cabinet-making to tracking the stock market to following legislation in the Massachusetts statehouse. He was proud of running – and finishing – the 1982 Boston Marathon.
After moving to Portland, Oregon in 1997, Jim worked as an extra in films including “Love is Strange” (1999), “Men of Honor” (2000), “The Hunted” (2003), “Music Within” (2007) and “Untraceable” (2008). In those films, he was a “background actor,” but his crowning achievement was landing the speaking part of Graduation Reader in director Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007). In the odd logic of Hollywood, Jim won that part simply because he had a beard.
Jim was a lover of dogs and music, a Francophile and champion of both Irish and Lithuanian independence. He was a close observer of politics and philosophy and he was a poet, placing twice in the Flint, Michigan Public Library’s Bad Poetry contest. He wrote a news story about the Dalai Lama’s visit to Portland that ran on page one of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Jim loved swimming in the ocean, cooking vegetarian meals and the beauty of the natural world. He was also an accomplished photographer and gardener, preferring to tend flowers over vegetables. His pictures revealed the sensual hearts of his flowers.
Jim often volunteered as a normal control for various clinical studies. During his life, he survived a vicious dog bite, kidney stones and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but on October 21, 2022, he succumbed to a chain of events triggered by a defect in his intestinal system that he’d had since the day he was born, without ever knowing it.
One of Jim’s gifts was finding creative ways to mark the passing of another being. Friends, neighbors and their dogs will gather in December for a memorial in the Portland park where Jim used to walk his beloved black Labrador mix, Sade.
Jim is remembered by his partner of 30 years, Christy George, his brothers Leonard and Thomas O’Neill, Len’s wife Ingrid and their children Eric and Christina.