Best friends for life
Reuben M. O’Neal turned 98 in June, but the party began Thursday night at home and then at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park among his family and friends – including his best friend, who is also 98.
O’Neal and Arthur Stanley Alston have been friends for most of their adult lives. They became friends through church and work. Both worked at the Liggett & Myers tobacco factory in Durham. Both were best man in each other’s weddings.
After work on Friday nights, O’Neal and Alston would take O’Neal’s blue 1938 Ford out to Raleigh. They don’t recall exactly when they met, but remember seeing each other at church, work and in the West End neighborhood. They attended Second Baptist Church at Morehead and Kent streets, which is now First Calvary Baptist.
They were both born in 1916 and moved to Durham as teenagers – O’Neal from Johnston County and Alston from Louisburg.
O’Neal finished school through ninth grade, moved to Durham and started working at the cigarette factory in 1943. He worked in the kitchen where they did the flavor, he said. After two years in the Navy during World War II, he came home and went back to work at Liggett & Myers before “the new building was built.” In 1948, L&M built what is now referred to as the Chesterfield Building downtown. He later finished his high school education and went to Durham Business School.
Alston “worked on the chain and then the shop and at night cleaning up,” he said. Alston explained that the chain was the cigarette assembly line. Like his friend, he too served in the military during the war and returned to work in Durham. The last decade of his job at Liggett & Myers was in security, and he also worked security for entertainers who came to perform at the Durham Armory downtown and in Raleigh.
O’Neal retired in 1979, and Alston a few years later.
O’Neal’s younger sister, Cora O’Neal Dixon, is retired from the federal government and lives in Washington, D.C. She and sister Zula O’Neal Witcher, who also lives in D.C., came down for their brother’s birthday celebration at the ballpark, which kicked off a weekend-long family reunion with hundreds of relatives. O’Neal, Dixon and Witcher are the three surviving siblings of 10.
O’Neal and his wife, Nekoda, have been married 66 years and have five children.
Son Elton O’Neal said there was always a strong bond between the O’Neal and Alston families. Elton O’Neal described his dad as a jack-of-all-trades who was also a carpenter and mechanic. He took apart watches and radios and put them back together and was always fixing something. Elton learned carpentry while working on Alston’s house with his dad.
“Anytime anything happened in his family, we were there, and they were there [at ours],” Elton O’Neal said. He said his father and Alston fit as friends because they never drank or smoked. They worked side jobs together, too, like mowing the lawn at Forest Hills Park.
Reminiscing about their early friendship, Alston talked about how they went riding together in that car.
“He had that ’38 Ford,” Alston said.
“I’ve been knowing him a long time,” O’Neal said about his friend.
“We have a good time together,” Alston said.
O’Neal sold that ’38 Ford – which he bought in 1941 at Fort Bragg – and then bought a 1941 Ford that had a 1946 hood, from a fellow at Camp Butner, he said.
The friends talked in O’Neal’s living room Thursday evening, a few blocks from the Durham Bulls Athletic Park as more extended family gathered before heading to the game. Heavy rain gave way to brief sun and they arrived at the game to watch from a suite at the DBAP, courtesy of the Durham Bulls organization.
Family rolled each 98-year-old man’s wheelchair out the skybox doors to a table outside, where they watched the game side by side as they ate dinner.
“What do I think of my birthday? I think it’s fine,” O’Neal said.
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