We note with sadness the passing of Abby Milton O’Neill, who carried on the Rockefeller family tradition of service and generosity to Colonial Williamsburg as well as many other worthy causes. Her lifetime involvement with the foundation, which included 28 years on the Board of Trustees and substantial contributions, greatly expanded our ability to share the story of America’s founding with ever-broader audiences.
Mrs. O’Neill was born April 27, 1928 in New York City, to David Meriwether Milton and Abby Rockefeller Mauze. She was the first grandchild of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who at that time was immersed in the restoration of Williamsburg to its 18th-century appearance, and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. She graduated from the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia and Bradford Junior College in Massachusetts.
In 1949 she married George O’Neill, with whom she had six children. They were frequent visitors to Williamsburg, especially around Thanksgiving. In an unpublished reminiscence, Lucy Sneed, a Colonial Williamsburg hostess from the 1950s, expressed a particular fondness for her. Mrs. O’Neill seemed “unaffected” by her fortunate circumstances, inviting the hostess to lunch and even sending Christmas cards. “It’s wonderful that people who have so much can be so unpretentious,” said Lucy.
In 1958 Mrs. O’Neill was the first of her generation of Rockefellers to join the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the family’s charitable arm, and the first woman to serve as its chairman.
Mrs. O’Neill served as a trustee for Colonial Williamsburg alongside her husband from 1966 to 1994, including nine years as vice chairman. Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill were charter members of the Raleigh Tavern Society in 1979. They often attended the Antiques Forum and donated five 19th-century folk art paintings to the collection.
“Abby O’Neill was an effective, respected and much-loved leader in her extended family and in the organizations she served,” said Colin G. Campbell, chairman emeritus of Colonial Williamsburg and retired president and CEO. “She was devoted to Colonial Williamsburg and exceedingly generous. When I was president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, she was a firm and engaged chairman—a warm and thoughtful colleague. Our partnership was productive, our travels memorable, and our relationship one that I will always treasure. Nancy and I have lost a dear friend.”
The generosity of Mr. and Mrs. O’Neill had a far-reaching impact on the foundation’s ability to fulfill its educational mission: programming for Colonial Williamsburg’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1976; renovation of Bassett Hall, where the Rockefellers made their home in Williamsburg in the early years of the restoration; the expansion of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum; restoration of the museum’s iconic film, The Story of a Patriot; and endowed positions for Collections and the library.
In 1992 she was the first recipient of the Churchill Bell, a replica of a bell presented to Winston Churchill in 1955 for his commitment to freedom. It is the foundation’s highest honor. The citation recognized her extraordinary service and efforts to advance “the values exemplified by 18th-century Williamsburg: liberty, courage, and devotion to the dignity of the individual.”
Mrs. O’Neill’s dedication to these ideals was evident in her priorities. She took a special interest in the funding and construction of a permanent research library on the Bruton Heights campus, chairing the Architecture and Design Review Committee for the project. Today the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library continues to be an invaluable resource for our interpreters, academic historians, students, and other researchers.
In 2014 Mrs. O’Neill supported her long dedication to history education with a gift that employs the talents of Colonial Williamsburg’s Teacher Institute to help invigorate the teaching of American history and civics in New York State schools.
“Like her grandfather, Abby O’Neill’s legacy stands in bricks and mortar, but also in the countless guests, educators and learners who draw knowledge and inspiration from the critical work of Colonial Williamsburg that she so generously supported,” said Henry C. Wolf, chairman of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation board. “She was also a remarkably kind and engaging person whom so many Foundation employees and volunteers enjoyed hosting as a guest with her family. We remember her with deep gratitude as we extend heartfelt sympathy to her family and to her many friends.”
Mrs. O’Neill is survived by her husband of 67 years, George O’Neill, of Oyster Bay, New York, and their children: George D. O’Neill Jr., David O’Neill, Gail Caulkins, Peter M. O’Neill, Wendy O’Neill, and Colonial Williamsburg Trustee Catharine Broderick.
“Colonial Williamsburg is a treasure unique in the world, and one that would not exist without the vision and generosity of Abby O’Neill, her grandfather and the other members of her family who lead and sustain the Foundation to this day,” said Colonial Williamsburg President and CEO Mitchell B. Reiss. “So much of what we do – from research and educational outreach to the growth of the Art Museums – would not be possible without her support. As we mourn her passing, we honor her commitment to share our nation’s enduring story.”