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Jim O'Neal; Cartographer Worked in Antarctica

Several miles of Antarctica's western coast were named for cartographer Jim O'Neal.
Several miles of Antarctica's western coast were named for cartographer Jim O'Neal. (2001 Photo By Tom Fedor -- The Gazette)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 9, 2008

When Jim O'Neal was approaching his 30th birthday, he had a chance for a rare adventure: a visit to the southernmost continent as part of an international expedition to Antarctica.

Mr. O'Neal, 81, who died of encephalopathy Nov. 1 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, was a cartographer with the U.S. Geological Survey in 1956, when he volunteered to represent the United States on a six-month-long Chilean-led trip.

He visited remote glaciers aboard a two-seat helicopter piloted by a daredevil Chilean air force captain who buzzed sleeping seals. They landed on a glacier where chicks had just hatched at a penguin rookery.

He made several shipboard crossings of the Drake Channel, a 700-mile stretch between Antarctica and South America that sailors dubbed "the screaming sixties" for the dangerously strong winds.

Although he joined Adm. Richard E. Byrd's staff when he volunteered for the trip, Mr. O'Neal never met the renowned polar explorer. The trip was part of Byrd's effort to document the Antarctic expeditions and their research during the International Geophysical Year.

Mr. O'Neal's job was to take photographs and write biographies of the scientists who surveyed the continental coastline. Almost 50 years later, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names named several miles of the western coast for him. O'Neal Point is at 64 degrees 42 minutes south latitude, 62 degrees 18 minutes west longitude, on the Antarctic Peninsula.

"People say, 'Well, now that you've got a place named down there you have to go down and look at it,' " Mr. O'Neal told the suburban Gazette newspaper in 2002. "I've probably been by it on the Bransfield Strait."

James David O'Neal was born in Cumberland, Md., and grew up in the western part of the state. He served on a Navy submarine in the Pacific during World War II.

After the war, he graduated from George Washington University and received a master's degree in geography from the school in 1957. He taught evening classes at his alma mater for a number of years.

After he returned from his trip to the bottom of the world, he was reassigned to the Army Corps of Engineers, where he worked until his retirement in 1981 as a geographer.

He received the Interior Department's Antarctic Service Medal in 1970.

He enjoyed hunting, fishing, photography, archery and shooting. He was an expert sharpshooter, a member of the National Rifle Association and the Antarctican Society, and a past president of the Rockville chapter of the Izaak Walton League. He also was a volunteer at Epworth United Methodist Church in Gaithersburg.

Survivors include his wife of 60 years, Betty H. O'Neal of Gaithersburg; a daughter, Cindy Keefer of Westminster; a sister; and five grandchildren.

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