Bayou Icon | John Arch O’Neal, Jr.
article by Georgiann Potts
photography by Kelly Moore Clark
Choudrant, Louisiana, is the center of John O’Neal’s world. He loves to recount that small town’s history and is proud of how the O’Neal family has played a part in its development for nearly 200 years. Their willingness to do whatever it takes to build a dream was passed down through the generations with each adding a chapter to the family’s story. Through intelligence, hard work, a keen business sense, and some good luck, John established O’Nealgas in 1952. In the 71 years since O’Nealgas was founded, it has become a major business in our area and beyond. Because of his remarkable business success, his personal tenacity and willingness to meet all challenges, his devotion to family, his faith, and his determination to help others whenever or wherever the opportunity arises, John Arch O’Neal Jr. is our July 2023 Bayou Icon.
The name “Choudrant” has many possible origins, according to John A. O’Neal Jr. Some believe it came from the Native Americans while others trace the name to French trappers. No matter the true origin, this little town has been home to generations of O’Neals.
“One story told around here is pretty funny,” John recalls. “In the early days Choudrant had the reputation of being a pretty rough town. The story goes that a drunk got on a train and the conductor asked him where he was going. The drunk replied, ‘Going to Hell!’ The conductor told him to give him 50¢ and he would take him to Choudrant.”
A favorite family story concerns John’s grandfather, Joseph M. O’Neal, who hired out his team of horses and his fresno (soil slip) for $2 per day when the railroads came to town in about 1876. Locals with “fresnos” would rent their wagons, and horses or mules, when the railroads needed help moving fill dirt to build the railroad bed. John’s grandfather lived 3 miles from the site, so he walked 6 miles a day to get to and from work. This “do whatever it takes” work ethic has been passed down — generation to generation.
LEARNING LESSONS FROM HIS FATHER
John’s dad, Arch O’Neal, was one of eleven children – 7 boys and 4 girls. All of them lived to be adults, a feat not so common back then.
John grew up in his dad’s store, working alongside him. In those days, the stores were all built along the main street which also ran along the side of the railroad. The railroad was the only way farmers could get their goods to market. As a boy, the O’Neal Store and the nearby railroad were his playground. When he was 11, John would get up at 6:00 a.m. to help his dad open the store. “One day I asked my dad if I could come in a little later. Dad said that I needed to be there when we opened because he was training me how to run a business,” John says. “I suggested that maybe I could begin training a little later in the day. That idea fell flat.”
John loved the store – despite early hours and long days. Most of all, John loved to listen to the older men sitting on the store’s porch telling tales. When his dad started his business, he had a T-Model car that he would work on all week, so that it would run on the weekend. There were always stories about that car!
John’s mother, Josie W. Campbell, was born in the Luna community. When Arch met her, she was a teacher at the Sibley school and a romance quickly blossomed. In 1920, they married and moved to Choudrant where they built a house and reared their children, Sarah and John.
When the Great Depression hit, no one was spared. Arch had built a cotton gin several years earlier and had a growing business buying and selling cotton seeds, peanuts, and other goods. Suddenly, no one had any money to buy seeds or anything else, and John’s parents had a large debt from building the gin. “Just like everyone else, my parents worked even harder,” John remembers. “Mother worked in the store to help. It took them six years of really hard work, but they paid off that debt.”
PURSING HIGHER EDUCATION
When John graduated high school after the 11th grade (the last year Louisiana students attended just 11 years), he chose Louisiana Tech University for college. John earned a business degree in three years. “I was in a hurry,” John explains with a chuckle. That degree served him well in the coming decades.
STARTING A BUSINESS
In 1950 when John was beginning his final year of college, Arch passed away. After he graduated in 1951, John hoped to stay close to home to help his widowed mother. John asked his relatives, Frank and Fred O’Neal, about starting his own butane business in Choudrant. They warned him that it would take “a lot of capital” to start up a fuel business, and even more to run it. They also explained that specific business is seasonal. Still, John felt confident that he could raise the funds and make a go of it. His cousin Fred got him a contract to purchase butane so he could open the business. His uncle Joe Norris found a truck for him, and John made his first delivery of butane on March 15, 1952.
BEGINNING A FAMILY
John met Martha Jane Mitchiner (nicknamed “MeJ”) at Louisiana Tech. During their courtship, John invited her to go with him to an O’Neal family reunion. The reunion site was on the grounds of Camp Alabama in Sibley. The O’Neal clan gathered from near and far, each bringing a dish to contribute to the “dinner on the grounds.”
To say that the reunion – and the O’Neals – made an impression on MeJ is an understatement. John later learned that after he took her back to her dorm, she telephoned her mother in Oak Grove to say she had never seen so many people in one place related to each other.
In January 1953 John and MeJ married at the First Methodist Church in Oak Grove. “The best decision I have ever made in my life was to marry MeJ,” John says with a smile.
BUILDING A LEGACY
At the beginning, O’Nealgas had no employees except John himself. As the business grew, John decided he needed a truck driver. Good luck appeared in the form of John Davis. He was a good “people person,” and the first of many great employees to work at O’Nealgas. When asked how he built the business from those early beginnings to the highly successful operation that exists today, his answer is simple and direct: “Step, by step.”
In 1973, John and R.W. Anderson bought an underground storage facility in Gibsland, which included a fleet of L.P. Gas trailers, and the business of wholesale gas marketing. This business later became what today is known as Hercules Transport.
If you asked John today if he would start over and go into the same business, John answers affirmatively: “Yes, I would do it all again.”
ALWAYS GIVING BACK
While building and establishing new businesses, giving back to the community has always been part of the O’Neal family’s master plan. Following that tradition, John always finds the time to help others. John donated many volunteer hours to his community. He was a director of the Bank of Choudrant in the mid 1950’s, and in 1962 was instrumental in establishing Lincoln Bank and Trust where he served on the Board and was the Chairman when the bank was sold in 1986. John has served on the Boards of Evergreen School (Presbyterian school for youth with special needs), Central Bank, Shriner University, Lincoln General Hospital, Louisiana Propane Gas Association, the National Propane Gas Association, and the Alabama Presbyterian Church Session.
Devoted to his faith, John supports the church in any way possible. In the late ‘40’s a very special opportunity arose for a new youth church camp. The extended O’Neal family joined with others to make this camp a reality. Spearheaded by John’s cousin, the Rev. Lloyd O’Neal, the development of the camp moved forward. As a result of many people who volunteered their time, donated or raised construction funds, or simply offered encouragement, the camp project was approved by the Presbytery in 1948. The camp was named “Camp Alabama” and in June 1950, it opened for the first campers.
Most of the cabins or other structures were named for the family or donor who had made its construction possible. At the August 1951 O’Neal family reunion, the O’Neal Memorial Chapel – a gift to Camp Alabama from the O’Neals – was dedicated.
Camp Alabama prospered for many decades, but by the 1980’s, there were challenges. The Presbytery decided to build a new youth church camp in Arkansas. In 1990 Camp Alabama was leased to the Monroe YMCA for use as a children’s camp for kids with medical disabilities and challenges. John was on the Med Camps Board at that time and negotiated a 20-year lease for the newly named Med Camps. When additional acreage was needed to accommodate growth at the camp, John’s son, Tom O’Neal, purchased land adjacent to the camp and leased those 40 acres to Med Camps.
Med Camps, at the old Camp Alabama site, has flourished under the O’Neal family involvement. Caleb Seney is a primary reason for its success. He has been involved at Med Camps since 1993, and for the past 20 years, he has served as Executive Director. In large part through his early efforts in 2014, Louisiana Tech University’s School of Design’s ARCH 335 Design-Build Studio agreed to partner with Med Camps of Louisiana. The Studio is led by LA Tech professors Brad Deal and Robert Brooks. The students continue to identify Med Camps’ most urgent needs, and design and build solutions to meet those needs. Because of their efforts, Med Camps has a central assembly area, an archery range, a canoe launch for easy access for kids with disabilities, a floating bridge, and a ZIP line which provides camp residents opportunities to experience what all kids love.
American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882) wrote, “The purpose of life is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” John A. O’Neal has been all these things and has made a difference for many. His – and his family’s – legacy lives on.