Originally Published: September 6, 2008 9:31 p.m.
PRESCOTT - To those who knew him best, William Owen "Buckey" O'Neill was a fearless patriot whose undying love for the United States ultimately cost him his young life during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
On Saturday afternoon, Sharlot Hall Museum's Blue Rose Theater put on the second of seven performances of "They Called Him Buckey," a story that examines the brief, illustrious life of O'Neill - a Prescott hero who served as Yavapai County sheriff, county probate judge, school superintendent, tax assessor and Prescott's mayor, as well as one of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders.
Just about everyone with whom O'Neill came into contact referred to him by the nickname Buckey - except for his wife, Pauline, who despised the moniker because of its connotations with his infamous gambling activities (he would "buck the tiger" in Whiskey Row faro games).
The play's setting takes place in O'Neill's Prescott home on the night before he leaves for Cuba, where the 38-year-old was later shot to death by the Spaniards during the Rough Riders' charge up San Juan Hill on July 1, 1898.
An elderly Pauline, played by actress Bunny Sherman, reminisces about her beloved husband while two younger actors, Irisa Raen Kennedy (young Pauline) and Zackary Evans Folkestad (O'Neill) perform scenes of her flashbacks about the couple's last night together before O'Neill departed Prescott for the battlefield.
Pauline makes no bones about how much she hates the war and pleads with Buckey not to go to Cuba. But Buckey insists that he must fulfill his "duty" and "honor" as a Rough Rider, defending the country's freedoms against tyranny.
Before he sets off, Pauline coaxes O'Neill to pen a short memoir of his most memorable experiences in the Arizona Territory.
"Write about your life, and I will get you a plate of cookies," Pauline tells Buckey, who is seated at his desk in one of the play's scenes.
O'Neill was born on Feb. 2, 1860, to Irish immigrants in St. Louis, Mo. O'Neill's father, John, fought in the Irish Brigade during the Civil War, and to a degree, he followed in his dad's footsteps.
In 1879, O'Neill trekked west to Arizona in response to Gov. John Charles Fremont's recruiting efforts.
Prior to his arrival in Prescott, O'Neill worked for the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper, where he gained first-hand knowledge of the dirty deeds of the stagecoach robbers and cattle outlaws along Arizona's southeastern border.
After short stints in Tombstone and Phoenix, O'Neill came to Prescott in 1882, where he stayed for 16 years. He labored as a court reporter, editor of the Arizona Miner newspaper, and as editor and publisher of the Hoof and Horn paper in a town that had just 5,000 people, including a large contingent of miners.
Despite his clean-shaven appearance, O'Neill, an ambitious and restless man, had some vices. For example, he often smoked, drank and gambled.
"Prescott had an abundance of saloons and gambling halls," O'Neill says in the play. "Gambling was not my way of life - it was a part of it."
Written and helmed by Blue Rose Theater director Jody Drake, the play's scenes were adapted from journal writings Pauline and Buckey left behind.
Drake started the Blue Rose Theater group in 1994 with the goal of teaching the public about local history through plays.
Over the past 14 years, the theater has produced 72 pieces of work, including 68 original pieces written for Sharlot Hall Museum.
For more information about the O'Neill play and its performances, which will wrap up Blue Rose's 2008 season later this week, call the museum at 445-3122 or log on to its website at www.sharlot.org.
Admission to the 45-minute show is $12 per person. Museum members get in at a reduced rate of $10.
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