Buckey O'Neill: A Rough Rider Cut Down In His Prime

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Rough Rider Buckey O'Neill rears his bronzed horse in Prescott, Ariz.'s town square. O'Neill was the quintessential Western hero, by all accounts. He died in the battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba in the presence of Teddy Roosevelt. Had he lived, everyone assumed, he would have become governor.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This morning we're continuing our summer road trip - Honey, Stop the Car! So far we've brought you the stories of a plaque for a pig named King Neptune and a monument to lost sailors in seaside Oregon. Today we're headed to Northern Arizona, where there's a statue to someone who might be better known�had he not met an untimely end. Gillian Ferris Kohl of Arizona Public Radio reports.

GILLIAN FERRIS KOHL: When Barry Goldwater launched his presidential campaign in 1964 and John McCain ended his run for president 44 years later, they chose the steps of the Yavapai County courthouse in Prescott, Arizona, the old territorial capital. In the crowd on a solid bronze horse was Bucky O'Neill.

Mr. JAY EBY (Historian): Captain O'Neill was quite a character, ran for delegate to Congress twice, the sheriff of Yavapai County.

KOHL: Historian Jay Eby says O'Neill accomplished many things during his short life. But his frozen image in Prescott's town square is a nod to his role as one of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in 1898 during the Spanish American War. Boots in stirrups, O'Neill straddles a rearing steed.

Mr. EBY: Many of the old cowboys argue whether or not a horse could really stand like that, but Borglum believed he could and created one of the most beautiful equestrian statues in the world.

KOHL: Solon Borglum was the brother of the artist who sculpted Mount Rushmore. Borglum accepted this commission because he was intrigued by the charismatic O'Neill, who travelled west to the Arizona territory. He started a newspaper, tracked down train robbers. And during his time as mayor of Prescott, volunteered to become a Rough Rider.

Mr. EBY: Bucky O'Neill was the first to enlist. He also put together all of the Rough Riders from Arizona.�

KOHL: And then set sail with Teddy Roosevelt to Cuba. Roosevelt wrote endearingly about O'Neill's character, recounting how O'Neill was the only man to dive into the sea when two black soldiers fell overboard. Shortly afterward, Roosevelt would be devastated when the 38-year-old captain was killed in the battle of San Juan Hill.

Mr. EBY: He had his troopers lying in the ditch hunkered down. And the sergeant said, Captain O'Neill, take cover. He says the Spanish bullet has not been molded that'll kill Bucky O'Neill. Almost immediately, he was shot and died.

KOHL: Jay Eby, a Rough Rider re-enactor, says many people believed if O'Neill had not been killed he would have become governor of Arizona, maybe even president. But he says these days Bucky O'Neill's legacy isn't always easy to get across. He cites a recent visit to a local pre-school.

Mr. EBY: I had a picture of the statue. And I held it up and I asked, does anyone know where this statue is? Up goes a hand. Yes. It's in that park that doesn't have any play things.

KOHL: A century ago, O'Neill's name would have been on the lips of every child in Prescott. In July of 1907, nine years after his death, Prescott's leaders unveiled the statue to a crowd of thousands in the town square. The next day the local paper reported:�Tears filled the eyes of many of those who had known him in days gone by. And with bared heads, while the band played "America," those present did homage to the memory of the brave Bucky O'Neill.

For NPR News, I'm Gillian Ferris Kohl.

(Soundbite of song, "America")

KELLY: We're calling our road trip Honey, Stop the Car! And it continues on MORNING EDITION and WEEKEND EDITION through the summer.�You can follow it at NPR.org.

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