Glen Cove resident and WWII veteran Robert O’Neill, 95, died on Aug.13, leaving behind his family and community that loved him with a legacy that many community members are saying they will never forget.
Miller Street, the street where O’Neill lived, will be dedicated in his honor, ensuring that the community will never forget someone who so many residents seemed to know.
“Jeanine DiMenna, the owner and chef of The View Grill in Glen Cove, was exceptionally good to my dad,” O’Neill’s daughter, Kerri O’Neill said. “She would make his dinner without salt with all his likings and they had such a wonderful relationship. He loved going to Leo's Deli in Glen Cove also.”
She said that U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, former City of Glen Cove Mayor Ralph Suozzi, State Assemblyman Charles Lavine, Councilman Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews and Ashley Alfredsen were helpful in obtaining the military document honors “he deserves.” And it was these men that were also instrumental in having the street named in O’Neill’s honor, as well as the city’s flag to be lowered to half-mass, bag pipes played and the honor army guard present at his funeral.
“My dad was a humble man that loved life,” Kerri said. “He cared about me more than anyone in the world and I believe he lived as long as he did to be with me.”
Beginning his fight in WWII at 19-years-old, O’Neill was part of the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He parachuted twice into combatant territory once into Normandy for Operation Overlord on D-Day and later into the Netherlands for Operation Market Garden. He also fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
After the war, he returned to the North Shore where he lived for most of his life. He was born in Rhode Island in 1924 and moved to Sea Cliff with his family as a young child. He married his wife, Elizabeth Grella, who died in 2016. O’Neill lived with his family on Miller Street in Glen Cove for many years.
“Robert O’Neill was welcomed into the Grella family with open arms,” O’Neill’s niece, Sam Kessler, said in a tribute to him on Facebook. “He gained brother-in-laws with survivor stories just like his. He gained nieces, nephews and eventually a daughter of his own. His daughter Kerri O’Neill was raised just as tough as he was. He let her ride dirt bikes and be the cool cousin to many of us.”
“My dad was warm and caring,” Kerri said. “ I knew in his life I came first. I had the best of everything, even though my parents weren't wealthy. My dad taught me how to ride a dirt bike, play baseball and basketball. We watched all sports on Sunday.”
Later in O’Neill’s life he remained in his Miller Street home, enjoying his network of local veterans and friends. “He never needed any help and flirted up a storm,” Kerri recalled. “He was a world class joker. His wit and humor is what everyone will remember him by.”
O’Neill’s friends, many of which belonged to the local veteran community, said that they will also never forget his humble and positive attitude. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Fred Nielsen and Tony Jimenez, the director of Veterans Affairs for the city, described O’Neill as someone who wasn’t boastful, but proud of his veteran status.
“All of us Vietnam War veterans and remaining Korean War veterans have such a special appreciation for the WWII veterans,” Nielsen added. “[O’Neill] did not speak to call attention to himself. Look at what the WWII veterans did and the climate that they had to do it in.”
And to many of the local, next generation veterans, Jimenez said, O’Neill was like a father figure.
“He had a very outgoing personality,” Jimenez said. “He loved [joking around] with other veterans. He would go into Charlie’s Deli or wherever and just be a social butterfly. He was always outgoing and was always talking to everybody.”
Councilman Gaitley Stevenson-Mathews said that he also had a very close relationship with O’Neill.
Stevenson-Mathews’ parents died in a car accident in 1997. And with his father serving in the U.S. Navy and his mother serving in the Cadet Nurse Corps during WWII, Stevenson-Mathews said that he was thankful to know O’Neill during his later years.
“Bob gave me an opportunity to visit with that generation,” Stevenson-Mathews said. “For me, I found a friendship not only precious, but I found a friendship so rewarding because I had an opportunity to visit with someone from the Greatest Generation and I didn’t have that opportunity with my dad.”
Nielsen remarked that O’Neill’s generation deserve the title of the “Greatest Generation.” “When our WWII veterans pass at this point, I always rest in the truth that they lived in the freedom that they fought for,” Nielsen said. “I will miss him and I’m sad that he’s gone.”
“I felt like Bob was a window into the past in a glorious way,” Stevenson-Mathews said. “He had lots of stories to tell; some of those about different people he met over the years.”
In May, O’Neill had the opportunity to be honored by the entire community on Memorial Day. The annual picnic hosted by the Glen Cove Veterans of Foreign Wars that he attends every year had to be canceled due to Covid-19. But Kerri did not want her father to go without the fellowship that he enjoys with fellow Glen Covers.
Dozens of cars, Glen Cove Volunteer Fire Department trucks, Glen Cove Police Department and Glen Cove Emergency Medical Services vehicles drove down O’Neill’s block, honking and cheering. “My dad talked about it for weeks afterward. He was so humbled that he couldn't understand why the community had done this for him,” O’Neill said. “We all knew he deserved this.”
“Bob was one of the few remaining WWII Veterans in our city and we owe him,” City of Glen Cove Mayor Tim Tenke said, “and them a debt of gratitude for the contributions and sacrifices in building our nation and making the world a better place.”