May 11, 2005

Rebecca O'Neill wins public service award

by Paula Davenport


Rebecca O'Neill

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A member of Southern Illinois University Carbondale's law school faculty — who works tirelessly for the region's elderly and its youngsters — is the winner of the 2005 Lindell W. Sturgis Memorial Public Service Award.

Rebecca J. "Becky" O'Neill, clinical associate professor of law, received the award today (May 11) during a luncheon in the SIUC Student Center.

The Sturgis Award, given annually by the SIU Board of Trustees since 1980, recognizes SIUC employees for public service unrelated to their jobs. It carries a $750 cash prize and is named after a Metropolis native who served on the SIU Board for more than 30 years. Sturgis chaired the board from 1969 until his retirement in 1971. He died in 1972.

"I feel very honored and humbled that somebody would take the time to nominate me for the award," O'Neill, of Marion, said. "Everybody does community service in some form or another, so it's very special when someone takes time to notice."

O'Neill, an attorney, co-directs the law school's Legal Services to Older Persons Program, an arm of the Legal Clinic. There, she supervises and trains senior law students who provide free legal services to those over the age of 60 in the 13 southernmost counties of Illinois.

She and a colleague oversee more than 400 cases a year. When students are not in attendance, the two handle all open files.

"Clients appreciate the great legal work done for them, but they always comment on how warm and friendly Becky and the students are and how much they appreciate this," Mary C. Rudasill, director of clinical programs and associate professor of law, notes in a nominating letter.

"Becky sets a great example for our law students. She demonstrates that you can be an extremely ethical, competent and successful attorney while still treating everyone with a manner of respect," adds Rudasill.

Outside the classroom, O'Neill voluntarily spends countless hours giving free presentations to the elderly on legal issues that concern them, from grandparents' rights to legal matters related to death and dying.

And she practices what she teaches.

Several years ago, she established the Bessie Engram Community Service Award at the law school. Named in memory of her grandmother, the award carries a monetary prize and goes annually to the law student who performs the most community service activities to the elderly.

"One of Becky's main teaching objectives is to impress upon law students the great need for ‘pro bono' legal service activities after they graduate and start their practices," writes Rudasill.

Off campus, she volunteers for numerous arts, sports and church organizations.

She belongs to the Marion Civic Center's Foundation Board of Directors, coaches for both the Marion Soccer Association and Marion Youth Baseball Association, volunteers for the American Cancer Society and with the Marion-based Paradise Alley Players stage company.

She founded ArtStarts, a club that helps pay for area children to participate in community arts projects; helped Marion School District pupils stage the 2004 musical production "Fiddler on the Roof"; and performs other volunteer work for the schools' music programs.

In 2004, Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Marion named O'Neill its Volunteer of the Year. A former congregational president in the church, she also founded its Christians Promoting

Justice program, which advocates restorative justice accountability conferences in the 1st Judicial Circuit.

"Becky is an excellent match to the ideals expressed by the Lindell W. Sturgis Public Service Award," writes Beth L. Mohlenbrock, executive director of the SIU Foundation Carbondale/Chicago-SIUC, in her nominating letter.

Serving others and providing a progressive graduate and professional education are among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

O'Neill is a two-degree graduate of the University. She earned a bachelor's at SIUC in 1985 and juris doctorate from the SIU School of Law in 1998.

She ran her own private legal practice from 1988 to 1991, when she joined the law school. She and her husband Lawrence J. O'Neill live in Marion with their three children, Lawrence V., 14; Maggie, 12; and Luke, 11.