True Friend, Amazing Leader, Consummate Visionary, and Generous Public Servant

Some of you knew Brian as the General Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks, or as a powerful voice within many Bay Area conservation organizations. Some knew Brian as a tireless environmental visionary and innovator. Some knew Brian as a highly acclaimed National Park Service leader and an outstanding role model for park executives the world over.

But no matter the context or relationship, whether you knew him for many years or met him only briefly, the impression Brian left was instantaneous and lasting. And it did not take long to realize his impact—on the people and parklands he loved so deeply—is indelible. Brian is as beloved as the Golden Gate National Parks he built.

As the executive director of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, I write as someone who worked closely with Brian for three decades. Our friendship is long and deep. And our commitment to this park and the people who care for it is equally deep—and something we share with all who celebrate Brian’s memory.

Many people saw Brian as a park maker with an inspired vision. And the Golden Gate National Parks constitute his masterpiece. Everywhere you turn in this national park—Crissy Field, Alcatraz, Fort Baker, the Presidio, and more—we see his amazing handiwork. But he was much more than a park maker; he really was, at the core, a community builder.

He intrinsically knew that any aspiration, any special place, any worthy program—needs a community of people loyal to the vision and committed to one another and their common purpose. Few national parks can match the outpouring of volunteers, donors, members, or visitors who have been inspired by Brian or served by his dedicated National Park staff. Within the National Park Service, at the Parks Conservancy, and through his many pursuits across the country and around the world, Brian gathered special communities of people who shared his vision—people who took such joy in their collective accomplishment and in one another’s company.

Brian described his role as a “friend-raiser” for the Golden Gate National Parks. And he did some amazing friend-raising. I can think of almost 30 distinct circles of friends and communities of people that Brian touched deeply. Those communities range from one end of the Golden Gate National Parks to the other; from northern Marin to southern San Mateo County; from San Francisco to the over 390 national park sites across America; from city halls to houses of Congress; from youth environmental leaders to acclaimed conservationists; from the Bay Area to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and points beyond.

And it is so clear why these friendships spanned the globe. Brian’s zest, exuberance, and charisma were legendary. He always saw the best in any situation, in any person, in any challenge. He gave from the heart and led with enthusiasm and humor.

In the days and weeks and months ahead, we have some simple, straightforward things to do that were in Brian’s sincere nature. We must remain kind and supportive to one another as we grieve for this amazing person; and we must remain true to Brian’s strong values that now are embedded in the Golden Gate National Parks—a collection of national park sites that expresses so beautifully his most robust, exuberant, caring, and heartfelt qualities.

That is an enduring thing we can do for Brian and for the great national parks at the Golden Gate. We will treasure these special places in his memory and hold them—his legacy—even more dearly.

Brian is as cherished as our national parks, as treasured as our historic landmarks, and as timeless as the beauty of the fog coming through the Golden Gate to Crissy Field. We will miss him deeply, but know that his spirit is with us. I look forward to seeing all of you, his special friends, out in the national parks. Brian would be very happy knowing that we were enjoying the place he helped create for everyone.

Greg Moore
Executive Director
Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Celebration of Brian O’Neill’s Life

On May 29, the family of Brian O’Neill, the National Park Service, and Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy gathered with Brian's friends and colleagues to celebrate his life, his legacy, and his work as General Superintendent of the Golden Gate National Parks. To view a video of the event, click here.

A Celebration of Brian O’Neill’s Life (1941 - 2009)
General Superintendent, Golden Gate National Parks (1986 - 2009)


  1. Brent O'NeillMay 29, 2009 at 10:32 PM

    Dear Dad,

    On this journey, I have
    Come around again
    To behold you as I have done so many times
    To take in your smiling face
    Your radiance, your joy, the pure goodness of your spirit
    To see the magnificent designs
    Of your soul
    Like a wonderfully intricate web interwoven with vibrant jewels
    To feel your tender side
    Outlined in your large, warm, hands
    To embrace the profile of a man
    An image of a human being
    Whose heart has left such a mark!
    Only love, and the sheer pleasure of living can leave such a mark!
    As you have…
    On me, our family – and the world

    The delight and/enchantment I feel for you
    Seems as vast as the universe itself.
    I find myself looking out
    Upon a cloudless night sky
    Wrapped up in your space and time here on earth
    And it is as if every star represents a part of your being
    Oh! To reach out and grasp the lights
    Let them pour into my hands and carefully place them in my pocket

    There was a special magic in your being
    A transcending energy
    Reflected everyday in that twinkle in your eyes
    And pouring outward
    A compassionate glow
    That permeated all (those)
    Who you touched
    For you, it was about friending people
    Oh! The ways you touched our lives
    What gifts bestows a caring soul such as yours

    There is a special message I hear in your voice
    Resounding boundlessly
    Like (a thrust) an eagle spreading its wings
    Embracing the creative will of others
    Your spirit had to tell us
    “Who’s to say we can’t do everything, well we’ll try”

    Dad, I know your humility
    Tended to soften the glow of your magnificence
    But you shall always remain among the greats!

    Some memories of you now
    Are dearer to me than what
    I can describe
    So dear and so present in me,
    Of recent years
    As I have fathered a family of my own
    Of happy, happy, joyous times
    Walking the beach
    And splashing around the sandbars,
    And looking for fossil shark’s teeth
    At the Chesapeake Bay,
    Of you holding my wife Anne and children, Kieran and Sean
    Who felt your glow and warmth so deeply,
    And loved your buoyant nature,
    To frolick alongside you in child-like glee,
    To cuddle during bedtime stories,
    We all wanted that feeling
    To last forever
    Those short visits
    When you came to us and we to you
    When we had each other
    When we had a precious piece of you.

    From deep within my being
    Where I shall always remain connected to you,
    I want to say
    Thank you!
    Thank you for the magnificence of spirit
    That we share in you
    I love you!

    by Brent O'Neill
    Spoken on Thursday May 29, 2009
    Celebration Event on Crissy Field

  2. Thank you Golden Gate National Parks Family for the most beautiful service. The atmosphere was perfect, simple yet so decadent all at once. Very thoughtful and loving. With each unique speaker, we all laughed and cried together as one. We all walked away with a regained sense of a new beginning, invigorated, rebirthed and ready. Thank you endlessly for the opportunity to share as a community over this great loss and breathe together into the next step.

  3. Dear Marti and family,

    The Celebration of Life in honor of Brian was so moving. I know Brian would have been so proud how it was handled. It was so good to see you Marti and the family.

    Thank you so much for sharing Brian with all of us for all these years. We all wish we could have shared him longer together. As you know Brian made such a great impact on so many lives and parks. Golden Gate National Park is where his biggest legacy exists, but he helped the entire national park system and all park lands. Brian was always ready to be of assistance with his great smile and can do attitude.

    As I came in as National Park Service Director, I already knew Brian due to his outreach to state and local parks. He was known for his establishment of a partnership culture everywhere he went. His fundraising/friendraising was a concept he taught all of us. One of my goals as director was to further enhance the partnership culture in the national park service. Brian was ready and certainly able to help me. He was my go to person in this area and, as you know, he was willing to come to DC and help me set up the first ever Associateship for Partnership for NPS. I had wanted him to stay and be the permanent head of the office, but he said no. He wanted to be with you and his Golden Gate back in San Francisco. I understood but was sad he wouldn’t be just down the hall.

    Through my almost six years as Director, Brian continued to be there for me and the national park service. Brian use to tell me how in earlier years his style was one not always fully appreciated in the national parks. I think though through my time and to current, Brian’s style and advice was in constant demand. He was so innovative and creative. He helped so many. Even recently during my time after NPS and now at Clemson University, Brian was always a part of my life. Most recently he authored an article for the South Carolina Park and Recreation Association’s Magazine on the 21 success factors for partnerships. We were reviewing an article for another publication and attempting to nominate him for the American Academy of Park and Recreation Administration. I want you to know that he will continue to be in my life and heart forever.

    I know how much he loved you and your great family. We will all miss him, but as we look around Golden Gate and everything he touched, we will know his legacy continues and how he made such a difference in everyone’s lives.

    Thanks again for sharing Brian with all of us. Please call on me if I can help you in any way.

    My prayers and thanks are with you.

    Fran P Mainella
    16th Director of the National Park Service
    Visiting Scholar Clemson University


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