When Mary Jane O’Neill learned that she was to be the Germanna Educational Foundation’s Distinguished Philanthropist of the Year for 2019, her first thought was that it would be another opportunity to help more people earn degrees.

“I thought it was wonderful, because the idea of the event is to raise money for scholarships for the college,” O’Neill said. “I think that’s a great idea, for people to be able to have their tuition paid for. I like that idea.

“I agreed probably because of that,” she added. “I don’t like to get attention. I like to stay in the background.”

O’Neill received the award, which has been given since 2009 for exemplary service to the community over an extended period of time, at a dinner Nov. 7 at Stevenson Ridge in Spotsylvania attended by 150 people.

The event raised $30,000 for the Germanna Foundation.

Germanna Community College president Janet Gullickson called O’Neill “the best example of a philanthropist.”

“She doesn’t throw money at causes but, rather, invests in cures,” Gullickson said.

O’Neill—who was born in Fredericksburg, in the old Mary Washington Hospital on Sophia Street—has “spent a lifetime making the Fredericksburg area a better place to live through her gifts of time and treasure,” Germanna Foundation president Bruce Davis said at the dinner.

O’Neill and her late husband, Robert, got involved with the community college under then-President Frank Turnage, whose 21-year term ended in 2007.

She served on the board of the Germanna Foundation and said what she enjoyed most about that experience was meeting and getting to know scholarship applicants.

“It was always interesting to hear them tell their stories and why they’re there,” she said.

She recalled one young man from Culpeper who came back to thank the foundation board for providing him the financial means to attend the community college.

He talked about how, as a child, he loved taking apart and putting back together small engines, and he cherished a lifelong ambition to be a car mechanic, O’Neill recalled.

But when he graduated high school, he learned that he’d need a certification—and he couldn’t afford it. Then he received a scholarship from the foundation.

“He came to thank us and tell us he had a job at the Honda place with insurance and a 401k—things he thought he would never have,” O’Neill said. “It was so touching to hear this young man tell his story.

“He was so excited—jumping up and down, just really happy, so it was fun.”

O’Neill’s philanthropy extends to other areas of the community. She was principal of Cullen Land Corp., a development company established by her husband, and in 2017 she donated the company’s headquarters at 530 Princess Anne St. to the Community Foundation of the Rappahnanock Region. Its auction raised $600,000 for the foundation.

Cullen Land Corp. also donated 4.5 acres of undeveloped land off Fall Hill Avenue to the city last year for use as a public park and natural area.

O’Neill established two funds at the Community Foundation—the O’Neill Family Legacy Fund and The Robert Cullen O’Neill Memorial Fund—and has left her late husband’s IRA to the foundation as a perpetually designated gift.

At Germanna, she established the Margaret and Tommy Pitts–Robert C. O’Neill Scholarship in memory of her parents and husband.

O’Neill said she wants to stay involved with Germanna “forever.”

“I’ve gotten to know [Germanna president] Dr. Gullickson and whatever they ask me for, I’m happy to participate and support,” she said.

She wants to help Germanna continue to educate local students to prepare them to go on to four-year schools or get certifications for jobs that will earn them good, living wages.

“It’s really important for young people to learn a trade, because not everybody’s college material,” she said. “They can get that certification and get a good job. That’s pretty important.”

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Adele Uphaus-Conner: 540/735-1973