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Coming back strong

His own life revived, a former teacher is giving new life to an old “friend”
Sunday, May 15, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:00 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

When the common flu spread to his heart in 2001, life seemed over for 50-year-old Rodney O’Neil.

“I thought for sure I was going to die,” he said.

But it wasn’t over yet. O’Neil, now 54, received a heart transplant at University Hospital, giving him a second chance at life.

Six years before he became ill, O’Neil biked for a third time across the country, starting in San Francisco and ending in New York City. During one of those 75-mile days, he discovered the Katy Trail and the small town of Rocheport. Two years later, he was calling the town home.

O’Neil moved to Rocheport in 1997 from Havensville, Kan., where he worked for 14 years as a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher.

He opened Katy O’Neil’s Bed & Breakfast adjacent to the trail that led him to mid-Missouri, catering to travelers from all over. Then O’Neil caught the flu, causing congestive heart failure. He was hospitalized for two months after the organ

replacement.

With a new perspective on life, O’Neil sold the bed and breakfast in July and moved into a converted railroad boxcar in the back yard. Three cats are his only company.

“Afterwards, I decided to live a bit more eccentrically,” he said. “Not everyone at 50 is given a second chance to look back and reflect on their life.”

Now he’s trying his hand at reviving an old friend from the family farm back home in Kansas.

The “friend”— a 1952 Chevrolet truck — is parked in O’Neil’s yard. It’s not his primary mode of transportation, but it gets him around town. Lately, O’Neil has been shuttling travelers up and down the trail and selling items that don’t fit in his consolidated living arrangement. The truck helps with the moving. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he attempted to change the oil and adjust an exhaust clamp. The oil rested under the hood in a small can. O’Neil tried to drain the thick liquid, but the harder he tried, the less it emptied.

“I guess this shows the age of the darn thing,” he said.

He wandered into his home and fetched the bottom half of a Coke can. He submerged the soda can into the oil container, and his hands were blackened by the aged oil as he slowly emptied it into a plastic bowl resting on the side of the truck.

The grime was considerable. But for a man with plenty of perspective on life, a little bit of grease was no big deal.

“What a mess,” O’Neil said. “Sometimes you just have to take what you are given in life.”


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