In Memoriam: Kay O’Neill

Kay O’Neill

Tobacco Reporter (Vapor Voice‘s sister publication) will be celebrating its 150th anniversary next year, and, understandably, no one today was present for its beginning. However, for Tobacco Reporter’s “modern era”—that is, when its headquarters moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, USA, in 1982—the magazine has been fortunate to enjoy an extraordinarily consistent existence in terms of its personnel. In fact, though many people have contributed over the years, we can easily point to a small handful who have been fundamental and foundational to the evolution of what Tobacco Reporter has today become. Our Mount Rushmore, if you will.

One of those people, without question, was Evelyn O’Neill. She was better known to the industry, her colleagues and friends simply as Kay. Kay joined Tobacco Reporter in 1991 and served numerous roles for the magazine and its family-like parent companies. On Jan. 17, 2023, after battling illness for far too long, Kay passed away surrounded by her loving family.

In her professional life, Kay did everything you can imagine on the sales side, developing relationships and fostering partnerships around the globe. She eventually earned the title of associate publisher, but to those who worked with her, her most important role was always being the “sales coordinator.” To translate that term, Kay was the buffer between the editors and designers back at the office who cared way too much about when the magazine was scheduled to go to the printer and the salespeople out on the road who were unfamiliar with the concept of deadlines. Kay handled each side with a magical blend of charm, humor and force as only she could, kept the peace and helped everything move forward with the big picture in mind.

As her former colleagues shared stories, it became apparent that Kay was the true definition of dichotomy. On one hand, she was a Carolina girl—that is to say, she came off as small-town country with the beautiful Southern twang in her voice—but she was as sharp and worldly as they came. She was equally comfortable networking with industry executives at five-course dinners as she was sharing a plate of Carolina barbecue with tobacco farmers at local extension meetings.

She wasn’t shy about mincing words and wouldn’t hesitate to kick you in the butt when needed but would protect you like a mother lion in her next breath. Each September, she would travel to one of the world’s great cities as part of the Global Tobacco and Nicotine Forum, staying in lush accommodations, then just a few weeks later, she would be in a giant tent standing over a space heater trying to stay warm as she worked a booth at the fairgrounds for the North Carolina Farm Show. Each of those moments was pure Kay. She was a professional, and she was a friend.

Those who knew her will not only miss her generous personality and infectious laughter but also her ability to disarm the moment and bring perspective. While Kay appreciated the value of hard work, she never lost sight of what truly matters: health, friends and family.

Kay is survived by her husband, Don Michael “Mike” O’Neill; her daughter and son-in-law, Laura and Erin Douna; her son and daughter-in-law, Ryan and Meghan O’Neill; her stepson and daughter-in-law, Don Michael and Marie O’Neill; her brother and sister-in-law, David and Regina Peebles; and her grandchildren, Abigail, Finley, Webb, Aubrey, Regan and Michael Wayne—along with a group of grateful friends from more than three decades at Tobacco Reporter.