A surprise response from Professor O’Neill

Professor John O’Neill (left) and wife Mary O’Neill at Hamilton College Reunions ’22. Photo (c) Nancy L. Ford, all rights reserved.

I was not expecting to see Professor O’Neill at my recent Hamilton College reunion. But apparently, in his 90’s, he still made an appearance.


In 2020, I blogged about how, in my first-ever essay, as a Hamilton College pre-freshman, Professor O’Neill caught me using an incongruous grammatical error. The statement was, in effect, “Usually these events get off to an unusual start.” Which Professor O’Neill hyper-focused on and completely excoriated me in front of everyone in the classroom. Ugh.

And I found out later that he used that very phrase – for the next 40 years – as an example of what he considered one of the worst butcherings of the English language. Even called it a “Millerism,” for some time.

Yeah. I mean, it spurred me to improve on my craft, for sure. But for a long time, I felt like someone who entered an Introduction to Art History class with a personal allegiance to Thomas Kinkade.

He even remembered the phrase – albeit without any prompting whatsoever – at my 30th reunion in 2015. And when he told me that he used that example in English classes for decades after my enrollment, I still felt queasy.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Professor O’Neill and his wife at the recent Hamilton College reunions. Mind you, it’s 7 years after our last meeting. John O’Neill is still walking around, even though he’s pushing the higher part of 90.

And he remembered me. And he remembered that “Usually these things get off to an unusual start.”

Okay, it’s 40 years now, I really should just …

“You know what, Mr. Miller, I really feel bad about what I did to you back then.”

Yeah, I’m going back to my dorm room and … wait, what?

“I shouldn’t have done that to you. Not in front of everyone. Not on your first paper. I shouldn’t have publicly embarrassed you like that. I apologize.”

I think my ears malfunctioned. John O’Neill apologized to me.

Excuse me while I search for my jaw, it’s somewhere on the floor.

We talked for a few moments. I said to him that he was one of the professors who encouraged me to continue writing, to seek a creative writing major, to graduate with a B.A. in creative writing, and to successfully write several fiction and non-fiction books. And for that, I’m grateful.

And also … I appreciated the apology, even if he didn’t have to do that. Even if it took 40 years.

Trust me on this. I’m good with an apology. I really am.

Because usually when there’s an apology, it gets off to an unusual start.

Yes, you saw what I did there. 😀