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Dr. Mary Anne O’Neal Retires from Academia After 33 Years of Loyal Service

by Nele Aline Langhof

Dr. O’Neal began her career in English education in 1987 while earning her master’s degree from the Western Carolina University. It was here that she discovered her love for enriching young minds and sharing her expertise in a wide variety of subjects.

After moving to Athens in 1991, Dr. O’Neal earned her PhD from the University of Georgia, studying American literature with an emphasis in 19th-century women’s voices. Her passions for underread female voices, primarily those of New Orleans, lead her to writers such as Kate Chopin, Alice Dunbar Nelson, and Grace King whose work guided her to embrace the beauty and magic in the everyday. As a result, Dr. O’Neal strove to find and present to the academic world a well-rounded image of what life was truly like for the 19th-century woman.

Dr. O’Neal credits a band trip she took to New Orleans as the first spark for what would become a career dedicated to the work of New Orleanian women. A self-described rebel, Dr. O’Neal wanted to leave her mark on the literary world by studying outside of the master narrative, discovering new or underappreciated work describing the domestic realities of women as they washed dishes and polished silver in the 1800s. More recently, she has found herself most drawn to the “texture of life” which Kate Chopin evokes in her narratives, such as with Edna who sits perfectly content with soup and a bottle of beer on a warm New Orleanian summer day.

“My mother used to joke that when Jesus came, she didn’t want to be found in New Orleans,” Dr. O’Neal laughed. “She called it the ‘City of Sin.’ Of course, naturally, that made it the place where I was really drawn to go. My husband and I used to go and try to cram as many vices as we could into one day.”

After earning her PhD in 1999, Dr. O’Neal dedicated herself to the beauty in domesticity, as well, raising her three children in Athens with her husband. She worked as an instructor for ten years at the University of Georgia until she was diagnosed with stage four cancer in 2012. Taking a bit of time off to undergo treatment, Dr. O’Neal shifted her life to travelling the world. Though her favorite place to travel is France, one of her favorite travelling memories was visiting Keats’s house. Standing in his bedroom, she was struck by his contemplations of his own mortality. Despite the current pandemic, Dr. O’Neal continues to hinge her hopes on travelling again soon.

“I really could be a nomad or a monk. Honestly, that life really appeals to me—just a couple of books and a cot,” Dr. O’Neal commented.

Since her retirement in December of 2018, Dr. O’Neal has been focusing on the quotidian details in her life. She lives with her husband and three children in Athens, nurturing her life and focusing on getting well. She’s dedicating her retirement to broadening her horizons, as she researches trees and birds from the comfort of her home while ordering take-out from Hi-Lo, Viva Argentine!, Home.Made, or The National.

“I’ve decided that the universe is going to come to me, if I can’t go to the universe,” she said.

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