By Courtney Brockman
MISSOULA – Paula O’Neil had no idea what was waiting for her under the piece of tissue paper on the table as family gathered, watching in anticipation, at her daughter’s home in Evergreen, Colorado, on Mother’s Day this year. Her arthritic fingers trembled as she lifted the paper to reveal a diploma, stole and tassel. The 98-year-old could not fully comprehend what she was looking at, until her daughter, Laurie O’Neil, told her:
“Well, you just graduated from college yesterday from the University of Montana.”
The moment Paula dreamed of for nearly 70 years finally had arrived. And also included in her Mother’s Day surprise was an edited proof of her most recent and final book.
Paula, who has been a writer most of her years, never graduated college.
“That is her life’s regret,” Laurie said.
Frances Pauline Meagher – “Paula” – began writing in middle school and wrote her latest book three years ago, when she turned 95 years old. The collection of short stories, called “Once Upon a Village,” is a 120-page novella based on the town and people of East Hatley, Quebec, where she lived when she was 13.
Paula’s parents emigrated from England and Ireland, and the first tale, “The Irish Story,” describes how she ended up in the French Provinces of Canada. One evening, she heard her parents arguing and eavesdropped on them. She remembered her father saying, “I’m going back to Ireland. I can’t stand New York, and it’s where I was meant to be.”
Two weeks later, her father had left, and Paula soon found herself on a plane to East Hatley, an idyllic little village now boasting 750 residents. She lived with her aunt and uncle for two years, and eventually her parents got back together, choosing to buy a house there.
After living in Canada, Paula moved to Long Island during high school and, in 1946, decided to attend the University of Montana in Missoula to major in English and minor in French.
When Paula took the entrance exam for the beginning-level French class, Laurie said she “flat-out failed it.” Paula visited the professor’s office.
“I speak French,” she told him. “And I’m wondering if I can take the second-level French.”
As the story goes, the professor decided to give her a chance, and she passed the second, harder test. She didn’t know the grammar associated with the first one, but she was so fluent, she could begin the second-level class.
It was at UM that Paula met her husband, Richard O’Neil, who enrolled at the same time. He served in World War II and graduated in June 1949 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Laurie recalls one story of her parents from before they were married – the two of them were waiting for a bus to downtown Missoula. When it arrived, Paula immediately started pushing her way to the front, even though there were only around 10 people riding.
“She was, after all,” Laurie said, “from New York.”
Paula attended UM from 1946 to 1948. When she married Richard and became pregnant in 1948, she had to withdraw from classes at UM. The rule then – as it was at most universities – was a student could not be pregnant and attend school.
She moved to Ohio and then Colorado with Richard, who worked in sales for a school bus company. She had a son, Dennis, in 1949; Laurie came in 1953.
But that didn’t stop Paula. For nearly 15 years – until December 1960 – she took correspondence classes from UM, earning 73 credits, enough for an Associate of Arts with a minor in French, but just shy of an English degree.
Paula receiving her degree now, seven decades later, is a historic event.
“Awarding a degree from 1948, 70 years after it was earned, is unprecedented for the Registrar’s Office,” said Joseph Hickman, UM registrar. “A few years ago we awarded a degree to a student 40 years after she had earned it, but this new record is unlikely to be surpassed.”
Through the years, Paula remained a prolific writer, publishing in House Beautiful, Highlights for Children, American Music Teacher and more. She wrote most in the 1960s, specializing as a short-story and article writer. She won a short story competition from the Writer’s Digest with her fictional story “Love is a Picnic.” She even won a washer and dryer from White King laundry detergent company for a slogan she wrote.
Paula also taught piano for nearly five decades, studying into her 70s at Colorado State University.
Laurie said her mother’s steadfast spirit defines her.
“If you want to typify my mother in five words they would be motivated, inspiring, slightly stubborn – or willful, as she calls it – creative and persistent,” she said.
Laurie followed in her mother’s footsteps, teaching voice for many years and now writing full time in all genres and winning multiple awards for her ghostwriting and editing. She even married a writer.
“When I sit down and take somebody, by my words, to a different place or time, it’s just magical,” she said.
One of Paula’s darker stories in her latest collection inspired by East Hatley talks about a mentally challenged girl who ends up beating her father to death. When Laurie, horrified, asked Paula if it were true, she said the people were true.
“She gave me that knowing little smile, and I think that’s where her fiction meets reality,” Laurie said.
Today, Paula still uses a computer to email and do research, although typing with arthritic hands has become difficult for her. Laurie said Paula finally receiving a degree and validation from UM for her work is huge.
“Knowing the circumstances about why Paula left UM in 1948 without graduating makes being able to award her degree now even more meaningful,” Hickman said.
As for Paula, receiving her diploma marks a final chapter in the story of her own life.
“No more regrets for Mom for never having graduated,” Laurie said. “Her life is complete.”