Ralph Ronald O’Neil was born on Aug. 27, 1959, to Eunice and Richard O’Neil, a homemaker and a farmer in the eastern Ontario town of Winchester. He had three older brothers, Robert, Clarence and Allen, and a younger brother and sister, Brenda and Rick. As kids, the O’Neils would play baseball and hockey, and fish for sunfish and perch in the St Lawrence River. Even then, Ralph had a “love for horses and cows,” and since he was 13 he worked on farms, says his 54-year-old brother Bob. “He, like the rest of us, quit school when he was 16,” says Bob. “He just didn’t like it.”
One evening, when Ralph was 21, he was strolling along a street in Winchester and ran into his aunt. She was walking with her friend, Heather Moodie, a 31-year-old from Ottawa who had started a natural food store in Winchester. “She introduced me to Ralph, and he was such a cute little thing,” says Heather. “There was just something about him—he had a great sense of humour and a twinkle in his eye.” Ralph swung by his aunt’s house later that night, and he and Heather were together ever since.
About a year into their courtship, Heather had returned to a job in Ottawa because her business had folded. With the couple trying to maintain a long-distance relationship, Ralph proposed over the telephone. “He couldn’t wait to see me,” says Heather. They were married on March 25, 1981, in Heather’s mother’s living room in Ottawa.
The couple moved to a small home in South Mountain, near Winchester, where Ralph worked at Barry’s Pet Food. Their first daughter, Christy Ann O’Neil, was born on Oct. 6. Tragedy soon struck with the death of Ralph’s father on May 21, 1982; Ralph had been close to him, and his death hit Ralph hard because he was no longer overly close with his remaining family. But the sadness was mitigated by the birth of the couple’s second daughter, Gen Marie O’Neil, who was born on Nov. 9, 1982. An easygoing, playful dad, Ralph was an “awesome father,” says Heather. “He did at least 80 per cent of the night duty, because he said I was way too grumpy at night to subject the poor innocent children to.”
Ralph was keen to return to farm work, despite the dangers. (In 1978, his brother Bob had slipped off a silo and had since been living on disability.) The family soon moved to Chesterville, just east of Winchester, where Ralph took a job at Donilyn Farms, a dairy farm. He would work there for 10 years, and after that continue working on other area farms. Marilyn Johnson, a close family friend and owner of Donilyn, says he was one of the “best hired hands we had.” He kept the cows “all trimmed up. Anybody could have walked in and think it was a show herd.”
When he could, Ralph went to Nationside Pentecostal church on Sundays. “He loved gospel music,” says Heather, “but wasn’t big on the sermons.” If he wasn’t working, Ralph would tune into the Gaither Gospel Hour, a weekly gospel program. In 1995, Ralph asked Heather if she would like to marry him again—this time in church. On a Sunday in March, they renewed their vows at Nationside. “For that he bought a suit,” she says, “and it was his only suit ever.”
In 1999, the O’Neils took in Serge Boisvert, then a 15-year-old friend of Gen’s who had nowhere to live because of a turbulent home life. “Ralph saw how scrawny I was back then, and he told Heather that you better feed this boy—he doesn’t look too good,” says Serge, who remembers Ralph working long days, then coming home, where— twice a week, religiously—he watched wrestling on TV. But he never complained about his job, says Serge. “He liked farming so much. Very rarely he brought it up that it was dangerous.”
In recent years, with both Christy and Gen becoming mothers, Ralph also found happiness in his grandchildren—and he clearly made an impression. “I do believe my oldest is going to grow up to be a farmer,” says Christy, whose son Logan, 3, “knows every tractor by brand and colour, including the difference between a combine and a haybine.” But for Ralph, years of farm work had taken its toll, and he was taking morphine for back and shoulder problems after a series of injuries. The pain drove him to start a new, less labour-intensive farm job, just five weeks ago. “For the first time that I’ve known him, he was pretty happy he didn’t have to do any heavy lifting,” says Serge. On Oct. 26, Ralph went to check on the farm’s corn silo. His boss later found him dead, poisoned by methane gas that is regularly emitted by corn. Ralph was 51.