O'Neal inducted into Livestock Hall of Fame for State Fair efforts
By Paul Nielsen
Thursday, November 7, 2019
SOUTH MILLS — Freddie O’Neal followed his father’s footsteps into a career with the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service and that path recently led the 66-year-old South Mills resident into the North Carolina State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame.
O’Neal was one of six inductees honored during an Oct. 20 ceremony at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh. O’Neal's induction was in the supporter’s category for his long-time support of livestock shows at the fair.
On hand for the ceremony were O’Neal’s father, George, and O'Neal's children, Stacy and Chad, along with other family and friends.
“Any kind of an award like this comes as a surprise,” O’Neal said during a recent interview. “It was a humbling surprise to get in this thing. They said among the six of us, there were a 140 years of combined experienced at the state fair. I have been going there since 1979. To receive an honor like that and to have your dad and your kids see that was very special.’’
O’Neal started his career in the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service in 1975, working as an agent in Hoke County near Fayetteville. In 1990, he came to Camden County as Extension director, a post he would retain until his retirement in 2003.
With the exception of the past two years, when he was recovering from surgery for back problems, he's been a fixture at the state fair, including helping youngsters with their animal weigh-ins and tag-ins. He said he expects to restart his work with the fair now that his back is on the mend.
“When you get into something and you stay in it for so long, it is something you are supposed to do,” O’Neal said. “Hopefully, I will continue to go up there and help anyway I can. I enjoy the animals, I enjoy the kids.”
North Carolina Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler called O'Neal a "staunch supporter of North Carolina agriculture" during remarks at the Oct. 20 induction ceremony.
"Freddie retired in 2003, but he has continued to give his all for the sake of North Carolina state livestock events," Troxler said. "Your energy, dedication and willingness to work hard are what the State Fair is all about."
Although O’Neal was inducted into the Livestock Hall of Fame for his work at the state fair, perhaps his biggest contributions have been at the local level, helping youngsters start at county livestock shows and progress to the state competition. Youngsters typically start with sheep and progress to steers when they are older and more physically able to handle the larger animal.
“It’s a stepping stone to move up,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal believes youth involved in raising livestock learn valuable life lessons such as responsibility and self-confidence along with a “love it and lose it experience.”
“All of us are going to experience that at some time.” O’Neal said. “A market steer, you get a calf at 500 pounds. You then feed him out until it gets to 1,200 pounds. You take it to the show and then it goes from the show to the market. The kid’s part of it teaches so many life lessons. The biggest one is responsibility because you are taking care of an animal.”
O’Neal’s dedication to helping young people includes even learning sign language so he could communicate with a boy he was mentoring who was deaf and mute.
“He used to laugh at me because he knew what I was going to say before I could spell it out,” O’Neal recalled.
O’Neal also has fond memories of chaperoning youth to the state fair each year while he was with the Extension Service. Instead of piling into local hotel rooms, O’Neal and the students would camp out at the state fair. Youth activities are usually held the first three or four days at the state fair.
“Getting a hotel room for three or four days was pretty dang expensive,” O’Neal said. “We had pop-up tents, and the guy that ran the area up there loved to see us arrive because we had the chuck wagon tent where everybody would eat under the same tent. You developed lifetime friendships through this deal. It was like a reunion every year because you made friends from all over the state.”
O’Neal was probably the last of the six inductees to be notified about being inducted into the N.C. State Fair Livestock Hall of Fame. A letter sent informing O’Neal of the honor never made it to his home.
“They finally had to call me,” O’Neal said with a laugh. “Somehow, they got the address wrong and they called me.”
O’Neal originally wanted to be an agriculture teacher but says his dad urged him to think about working for the Cooperative Extension Service instead.
“He told me it would be a good experience for me,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal agrees, saying one of the most satisfying aspects of his career has been watching the youth he helped mentor go on and be successful in life.
“We have kids now that are teaching in high school, grammar school, community college,” O’Neal said. “Some kids are farming and we have lawyers. Some of them are now carrying their kids back to the state fair.”