A grand tribute to a grand man: Bob O'Neil

Nearly 200 luminaries, from comedians and actresses, to First Amendment scholars, U.S. Supreme Court correspondents and Virginia governors, joined together to pay tribute to Bob O'Neil, VCOG's founding president and founding director of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.

VCOG partnered with the Thomas Jefferson Center to host the dinner Oct. 29 at the University of Virginia law school.

The eclectic evening featured tributes to the former president of UVA and a former clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan from VCOG's founding director Frosty Landon and founding board member John Edwards, as well as from former governors Gerry Baliles and Linwood Holton. Holton joked that on this night, he had won the on-going biggest-round-of-applause competition he has with Baliles. All praised O'Neil's intellect and influence, as well as his humility and integrity.


Baker & Hostetler attorney Bruce Sanford, who is chair of the Thoms Jefferson Center Board of Trustees, welcomed the guests as they sat down to dine and sip wine donated by an Oregon winery that was banned from distributing its product in Alabama because a woman's bare breast was pictured on the label. (Alabama received a "Muzzle" award from the Thomas Jefferson Center in 2010.)

Comedian Chris Bliss, who also hosts the MyBillofRights.com website, drew laughs and groans with his routine that emphasized the First Amendment's protection of free speech, even offensive speech. He also performed his jaw-dropping juggling routine -- a YouTube sensation -- to "Medley," from The Beatles' Abbey Road album.

Special guests included Supreme Court and political correspondents Ann Compton, Marcia Coyle, Tony Mauro, Nick Clooney and Ken Rudin poets Nikki Giovanni and Rita Dove, photographer Sally Mann, the named plaintiff in a famous school speech case Mary Beth Tinker, UVA president Teresa Sullivan and many others.

The event raised over $50,000 for a conference to be established by the TJCenter in O'Neil's name and for VCOG's Forrest M. Landon Government in the Sunshine Endowment.