Robert Moses, master builder of the state park system and a demanding boss, liked what he saw in Frederick P. O'Neill Jr., so in 1958 he appointed him one of his youngest superintendents.
O'Neill, who died March 22 at age 85 in Marietta, Ga., after a brief illness, ran Wildwood and then Heckscher state parks, where he trained several generations of park managers during a 44-year career.
"Fred was a gentleman from the old school of parks professionals," said former state parks regional director Ronald Foley. "He knew what was important; he knew when to get excited and when not to. He dealt with people fairly and helped a lot of people further their careers."
Born in Islip, O'Neill graduated from St. Mary's School in East Islip and Islip High School, earned an associate degree at Farmingdale State College and attended C.W. Post College of Long Island University. He played basketball at both colleges.
During his college summers, O'Neill, who had grown up on the waters of Great South Bay, worked as a lifeguard at Heckscher State Park in East Islip. After college, he worked full time at Heckscher, becoming a foreman and then assistant superintendent until Moses made him superintendent at Wildwood in Wading River in 1958.
Later, he came back to Heckscher as superintendent and remained there until he retired in 1990 and moved to Palm Coast, Fla.
O'Neill oversaw the transition of the South Side Sportsmens Club into what is now Connetquot River State Park Preserve in Oakdale and Bohemia. In the late 1980s, he was elected president of the New York State parks superintendents' association and was named state employee of the year.
"He was a great teacher," said Islip Town parks Commissioner Joseph Montuori, who went to work for O'Neill at Heckscher as a 17-year-old in 1970 and later became superintendent there.
David Catalano, former director of Bethpage State Park and director of operations for all the Long Island state parks, said he met O'Neill in 1978, when Catalano was named superintendent at Caleb Smith State Park in Smithtown.
"Freddy took me under his wing," Catalano said. "He was a consummate professional. His passion was making sure that the public who visited Heckscher enjoyed the facility as much as possible. He was hard-nosed, but he had a great heart, too."
He is survived by his wife of 60 years, Patricia; sons Gregory, of Metuchen, N.J., Randall, of Roswell, Ga., and Terrance, of Sayville; daughter Carolyn Bright, of Marietta; brother George, of East Islip; sister Katherine O'Neill, of East Islip; and 13 grandchildren.
A private memorial is to be held in Marietta. The family requests donations be made to the Alzheimer's Association.