Shortly before Doris Duke inherited the $100 million and became "the richest little girl in the world" in the early part of the 20th century, her Duke's father advised his 12-year-old daughter to trust no one. And she didn't. Life for the eccentric and reclusive heiress to the American Tobacco fortune suggests money can't buy happiness. During her more than eighty years, Duke divorced twice and was romanced by Errol Flynn and George Patton. When Duke's car crushed her chauffeur against the iron gates of her Newport estate, rumor said she had murdered her lover. Duke's own death of a morphine overdose in 1993 proved equally mysterious as her butler and beneficiaries battled over her fortune.
Such a character would hardly seem likely to make an enduring contribution to Utah's history, but Duke did. Besides the billion dollars she left to charity, she funded the University of Utah's Doris Duke Oral Indian History Project to tell the history of Utah's American Indians from their perspective. She had help from an equally colorful character, Floyd A. O'Neil.
Born on Bastille Day before electricity and indoor plumbing reached the Uinta Basin, O'Neil grew up knowing a Ute woman who had been sold as a slave in the 1850s and learning about his own ancestors--a volatile mix of revolutionary Irish fugitives, French fur trappers and Mormon farmers. O'Neil had the fire in his blood that makes Utah history so interesting.
Raised on a ranch close by the Ute reservation, he was riding a pony almost before he could walk. Most O'Neils became coal miners, but bad health led Floyd O'Neil to a career in education and history. His Ute schoolmates inspired his lifelong love of their past, but his university advisers warned that a dissertation in Indian history would lead to nowhere. O'Neil wrote A History of the Ute Indians of Utah anyway.
He taught history in Carbon County and at Salt Lake City's South High. Professor O'Neil, always immaculately dressed and astutely prepared, later brought Utah history alive for generations of U. students as one of the university's most popular teachers. He edited The Zunis: Self-Portrayals and As I Recall, the autobiography of Utah Governor Cal Rampton. He directed production of two-dozen tribal histories for Western Indians. For ten years, he ran the American West Center at the U. and now serves as director emeritus. One of O'Neil's greatest contributions was directing the collection of 1,500 oral histories for the Duke project.
A member of the history department once said that he would have done a lot better at the U. had he not been such a troublemaker. In Utah's "go-along-to-get-along" society, that's an indisputable fact. So it's both ironic and appropriate that this week the Western History Association presented its Award of Merit to O'Neil. Today, Indian historians will give him their Lifetime Mentoring Award.
The convention program featured a Floyd Festschrift, a fancy name for an O'Neil Roast, where students and colleagues celebrated and complained about his life's work. The brightest lights of Western history presented papers describing an amazing career: "You Can't Stretch a Rat's Ass Over a Rain Barrel," "Riding the Range with Floyd on the Big Apple Ranch: Recollections of a Jack Mormon by a Jewish Gentile," and "Dissertate, Damn You! Suffering Graduate Students Under Floyd A. O'Neil."
So even though O'Neil never had much popular fame in Utah, there is hardly a historian of the West who doesn't owe him a lot, including this one.