The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Civil engineer who helped design Metrorail system dies of the coronavirus

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For Robert S. O’Neil, his proudest moment and the pinnacle of his career was leading the building of the Washington region’s Metrorail system in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

As chief engineer for the contracting firm that built the massive Metro project, O’Neil enjoyed the challenge of designing the rail system that stretched from D.C. — under streets and through deep tunnels — out to the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia.

“We’d debate the shape of the Red Line around the kitchen table,” said one of his sons, Bill O’Neil, who lives in Bethesda. When the rail system was being built, O’Neil took the family to all of the stations, his son said.

“He was happy with how it turned out and it became such an integral part of the city,” he said.

O’Neil, 85, died Feb. 3 from coronavirus complications, his family said.

Born on the South Side of Chicago, O’Neil was the older of two children. His father was an engineer for the city and his mother worked as an administrator in the school system.

O’Neil served two years in the Air Force. He earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Notre Dame and later a master’s degree in engineering from Catholic University. He went to work for De Leuw, Cather & Co., which later became part of Parsons Corp.

Those we have lost to the coronavirus in Virginia, Maryland and D.C.

During his decades-long tenure there, O’Neil became president of Parsons Transportation Group, one of the main contractors building the Metro system. He ran the company’s transportation group for 10 years before retiring. In his role as head of the transportation division, O’Neil oversaw about 3,000 employees and a budget of roughly $1 billion.

He stood out, colleagues said, because he often helped to mentor young engineers at the firm and had a strong interest in the profession that showed in his work, said longtime friend and colleague Cliff Eby, 69, a former Parsons executive who knew O’Neil for four decades.

“A lot of engineers can do the math, run the computer programs, but they don’t really understand the fundamental engineering aspect of it,” Eby said. “Bob had a great way of explaining it and an intellectual interest in it.”

Eby said O’Neil was known for finding gaps or potential problems in a project’s design.

“He would look at a design and say, ‘That doesn’t look right, or something is missing here,’ ” Eby said.

O’Neil got married in 1958 to Barbara, who lived a few houses down from his family when he was growing up in Chicago. When he was recruited to run the Metro project in the mid-1960s, the O’Neils and their four children moved from the Midwest to the Washington area.

O’Neil also worked on other large-scale construction projects, including the redesign of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, transit systems in Los Angeles, Shanghai and Taiwan, and other road projects overseas. Parsons had a scholarship in O’Neil’s honor at his alma mater of Notre Dame.

On the Wilson Bridge, Eby said O’Neil was “instrumental in figuring out a unique design that was cheaper to build and still met all the criteria.”

On the Metro project, Eby said O’Neil liked the challenges of deep tunneling and building “huge cavernous stations,” as well as building rail yards for equipment at the end of the Blue and Orange lines to help improve efficiencies in the system.

O’Neil occasionally mentioned two perceived mistakes he saw after Metro’s construction: that there was no station in Georgetown and that every station looked the same, his son and Eby said.

“He thought there could have been some artistic differences in each station,” Eby said.

O’Neil retired in 2001 and did consulting work. He and his wife enjoyed traveling and took trips to China and France, while also spending time with their children and grandchildren. He played tennis and golfed into his 80s, and he enjoyed spy novels and historical books.

His daughter, Terri Noenickx, who lives in Bethesda, recalled how her father took the family of six to Europe after he got his first bonus.

“That was a special trip for all of us,” she said. “We were jammed into a car with all of our suitcases and it was a lot of family bonding time. Everything about it was magical. He instilled in us a real love of travel.”

O’Neil was “relatively healthy,” said his son Bill, and when he was diagnosed with the coronavirus, his son said, “we were all shocked.” He was two weeks from being vaccinated, according to his family.

O’Neil’s son said his dad didn’t have “unusual” symptoms at first, then was taken to the hospital. He spent two weeks in the intensive care unit. Two of his children, wearing personal protective equipment, saw him the day before he died at the hospital. Two other brothers were on a FaceTime call.

“We were talking to him but he was not responsive,” said Bill O’Neil.

Barbara O’Neil, 85, also contracted the virus but recovered. His family is planning a memorial service in the fall, when more people are able to travel.

After his death, Noenickx said one of O’Neil’s grandchildren, in her late 20s, recalled how he taught her to drive and it often led to a treat.

“All roads led to an ice cream shop,” Noenickx said. “He loved ice cream.”