Hank O’Neal’s career has taken him a long way from Kilgore. He has photographed legendary jazz musicians, produced hundreds of records and worked for the CIA. Now, his latest project examines a subject very close to his heart and to his history: the lives of his mother and father.
O’Neal’s book “Preserving Lives: An American Family’s Scrapbook, 1920-1950” was released this summer. The book is a collection of memories, scrapbook photographs, copies of letters and personal items O’Neal discovered when looking through some of his parents’ belongings.
“This is the funny thing. I didn’t even known that I had all this material,” said O’Neal, who was born in Kilgore. “My father died in Tyler in 1972 and I packed up all the stuff and brought it to my studio in New York City. I eventually started going through the things.”
Though O’Neal was close with his parents, his excursion through their keepsakes revealed items entirely new to him.
“The first thing I found was my mother’s scrapbook. There’s a page from it on the front of the book. I thought this was beautiful and charming. I had never seen it before. The only thing I had seen was my dad’s war diary.”
Captivated by the images and items he found, O’Neal began to imagine putting them together into a cohesive project documenting his parents’ pursuit of the American dream in East Texas.
“I thought this is beautiful, this could be a project. It was about 1980, there was a very popular book that had just been issued that was called ‘The Diary of an Edwardian Lady.’ It was very fancy and pretty so I called my editor and I showed her my scrapbook and she just couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I was right in the middle of starting a new record company and finishing up other books so I just put it up on the shelf.”
After several more years, O’Neal began to look through the items again and sort them. At the time, even O’Neal didn’t know what shape the final project would take.
“At some point in 1987 or ‘88, I bought a big house out in the country and had room to store stuff. At some point in the ‘90s, I found the box with the books and started going through them and started organizing them: my mother’s family’s side, my father’s family’s side, but I never thought about it as a book project.”
Among the items he found was a photo of his father at five months old riding in a small cart pulled by a goat. The photo was taken in Dallas in 1911. Later in his life, O’Neal’s father Harold helped build East Texas landmarks like Caddo Lake State Park and Daingerfield State Park as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps created by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He instructed ROTC cadets at Kilgore High School and Kilgore College when those institutions were brand new.
He also found photos of his mother Sarah as a young girl growing up in Tyler, report cards she saved, poems she typed and signed photos of Hollywood stars and starlets. There are many photos of Sarah and young Hank together, including a photo of Christmas 1944 which could pass as a Norman Rockwell illustration.
Also included in the book are some of the most famous photos ever taken of Kilgore. In the midst of the East Texas oil boom, a photographer named Jack Nolan took and annotated dozens of photos of the newly-rich town, its muddy streets and its gushing oil wells. This was the town O’Neal’s parents moved to in 1938 and where O’Neal was born in 1940.
Eventually, O’Neal’s connection to Texas inspired him to compile the items he found into a format which could tell his family’s story and, in turn, tell the story of East Texas.
“About three, four or five years later I started thinking more about it. I thought ‘I want to do some Texas things.’ I put together three Texas projects. This was one of the three. One had to do with Hwy. 80 and I’m still working on that. Then there was a third book that had to do with very old Texas pictures so I wrote all these things up and I thought ‘Well, these aren’t great big commercial projects.’ So I wrote a blind letter to the head guy at TCU Press. He got back to me very, very quickly and said that he wanted to do a book and I said great!” O’Neal said.
Once the outline of the project was determined, O’Neal began the long process of assembling photographs, keepsakes and mementos into book form.
“Starting in about 2015, I had my first meetings in Fort Worth and then I really had to get to work. I had some 580 illustrations to keep straight,” O’Neal said. “I started the design process in late 2016 and it took all of last year to get it together.”
O’Neal had to use photographic skills to make his way through the vast amount of images and items which had been stored for decades.
“Some pages I had to photograph individually. It was a challenge for me to keep it all organized, especially my father’s wartime photos. He had captioned some, but not all of them,” O’Neal said.
For O’Neal, this project was very different from his other photographic work.
“What I was looking for was something that was evocative of the time and something that would tell the story and something that was in good enough condition. In some instances, I did use Photoshop. If something had been torn, I would fix it up and try to put it back together. It’s a totally different kind of challenge because the kind of pictures that I take are different from the ones in the book. These pictures are as they exist.”
The hundreds of images contained in “Preserving Lives” tell the story of a husband and wife, a mother and father. They also tell the story of places, of incredible accomplishments and of a unique time in history.
Some of those people and places are long gone. The book mentions the city of Garden Valley, which, according to O’Neal, “is now just a crossroad. There’s nothing there. At one point, it was bigger than Tyler.”
Many of the places in the book are still around but most have changed so much over the years, they would hardly be recognizable to the people who once lived there.
“Preserving Lives” is a powerful glimpse at the world as it used to be, when two people chased the American dream and, at last, found it in their own way.
“It’s just about two ordinary people,” O’Neal said.
“Preserving Lives: An American Family’s Scrapbook, 1920-1950” is published by Texas Christian University Press. It is available for purchase from Texas A&M University Press at www.TAMUPress.com or by calling 1-800-826-8911 Monday through Friday from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. The book is also available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other book retailers.