O’Neal honored for 50 years of service

By Ann Thomas

Gary O’Neal will be honored November 14 for an unprecedented 50 years of service as director of music/organist at St. Mark Presbyterian Church in East Dallas. The celebration begins during the church’s regular worship service at 10:30 a.m., followed by a congregational luncheon. Ann O’Neal, Gary’s wife of 48 years and an accomplished musician who has served alongside her husband in a volunteer capacity, will also be recognized.

Music has been the major theme of Gary’s life, starting in Cumberland, Md., where he began studying piano at an early age and was involved with church music as a youth at the First Christian Church. He played in the band and was drum major his senior year at Fort Hill High School. He was also cast as Henry Higgins in the high school musical “My Fair Lady.” At age 15, Gary began playing the organ at Holy Cross Episcopal Church and Metropolitan AME Church.  

Together with his wife Ann, Gary has kept music alive and well at St. Mark for more than 50 years.
Photo courtesy of St. Mark Presbyterian

Gary continued his education at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon, W. Va. in 1969 and received a Bachelor of Music Education degree. It was there he met Ann, his future wife. Together they were part of the President’s Partners and traveled with the college president throughout W. Va., performing at college promotion programs. Gary served as the college chapel organist and as organist for the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Buckhannon. 

He sang with and accompanied the chapel choir, touring choir and the chorale at Wesleyan. Summer found him working with musical productions at The Wisp Ski Resort on Deep Creek Lake, Md., and serving as organist at Atlantic United Methodist Church in Ocean City, Md. 

Following college graduation, he attended the American Institute in Freiburg, Germany on scholarship and studied vocal technique, opera staging and master classes with the European organist Andre Marshall.  

Gary next completed the Master of Sacred Music degree in 1971 at Southern Methodist University’s (SMU) Perkins School of Theology, where he studied organ on scholarship with Robert Anderson and choral conducting with Lloyd Pfautsch. He was also a member of the SMU choir. During this time, he served as organist at Christ United Methodist Church in Carrollton, Texas. 

Gary’s church and public school careers began simultaneously in 1971, following his SMU graduation. In school, he held a federally funded job with Dallas ISD at Paul L. Dunbar Learning Center, where he taught and helped develop the Learning Through Piano curriculum for group piano. 

Before retiring in 2008, and after surviving several cutbacks in central staff, he concluded his Dallas ISD career in a dual position as piano specialist and group piano teacher at Carver Learning Center.  

Gary’s service with St. Mark Presbyterian began as choir director in July 1971. Shortly thereafter, he also became the organist.  

Under his direction, the church added numerous music programs. The children’s choir program included themed annual Vacation Bible School musical activities. In the early 1980s, Gary launched St. Mark’s handbell program, which remains active. Throughout the years, it added members and bell octaves, and the ringing choir participated in such festivals as Dickens on the Square in Galveston, Texas, and for numerous local group concerts.

Throughout the years, the mainstay of Gary’s work at St. Mark has been with the still-active sanctuary choir. Since 1971, he has directed the choir’s multiple Sunday worship services and countless special ones in the life of the church. These have included joyous Easter sunrise services on the church patio with the singing of “Morning Has Broken,” as well as somber Tenebrae services in the sanctuary, where candles were extinguished and “Were You There?” was sung. 

Gary’s tenure has spanned these significant changes and developments at St. Mark, now in its 68th year: four senior ministers, neighborhood demographics, two adopted Presbyterian hymnals, major building additions and sanctuary renovation, and the acquisition of a new Johannus Rembrandt 397 organ. His main contribution, however, has been through personal interactions — he has been present for baptisms, first communions, weddings and funerals. Using his musical gifts, he has appropriately helped members mark these benchmark passages of life through worship and fellowship.  

Lastly, and most recently, Gary never missed a Sunday during the major COVID hiatus. Together with Ann, he kept music alive and well at St. Mark. Through weekly e-news to the choir, the sending of recordings, Zoom, FaceBook and in compliance with the Centers for Disease Control, Gary never missed a beat, and St. Mark was able to provide weekly worship services with music.  

“Many people say that they worship best through music,” said St. Mark member Sheila Wahl. “Since 1971, Gary O’Neal has helped make that possible. Few congregations can say they have received such a blessing for 50 years. We’re so grateful for Gary and his wife, Ann.”