Remembering Agnes O’Neal: Celebrating Her Legacy with an Annual Pancake Breakfast

Since 2011, employees at Travis Association for the Blind, also known as the Austin Lighthouse, have enjoyed the Agnes O’Neal New Year’s Pancake Breakfast on a select morning in January. Stacks of syrupy pancakes, fluffy eggs, crispy bacon and more from places like the famed Threadgill’s or Cracker Barrel are served before the work day begins to show appreciation to all the dedicated employees and honor Agnes O’Neal.

But, who is Agnes O’Neal?

Agnes was a longtime employee and associate of the Lighthouse. She began working at the Lighthouse near the time the doors first opened in 1934. She left to work at the Texas Commission for the Blind where she managed cafeterias and snack bars, a career spanning over 40 years. She returned to the Lighthouse in the 1980s and continued until her retirement in 2009.

There are quite a few employees with sweet recollections of the Lighthouse star such as receptionist Laura Vela, who would receive many calls from Agnes after she retired to inquire about job openings or just to chat, but no one tells her story better than former executive director and board member Jerry Mayfield. Join us for a walk down memory lane.

Remembering Agnes Stark Conradt O’Neal

Agnes told us she came to Austin as a young girl to attend the school for the blind. She travelled from somewhere around Waco with her family by wagon. The family camped alongside the road somewhere near the school overnight until they got her enrolled.

At 18 years old, she worked at the Lighthouse on San Jacinto Street crafting kitchen items, some using a large manual loom. (We have photos of her using a loom). She made pot holders, dish towels, and kitchen rugs. These items were sold door-to-door by the blind men.

During the mid-1930s the Lighthouse had her setting up and operating small eateries (stands/cafes).  She would set a stand, get it going, then bring in another blind operator and go set up another stand.  She began working directly for the State of Texas Commission for the Blind doing this work, the beginning of the program that became the Business Enterprises of Texas Program -BET, a result of the 1936 Randolph-Sheppard act. Over the years, she stayed in contact with the Lighthouse and visited often.  She worked for the state until the early to mid-1980s, at which time she came back to the Lighthouse to work, then located on Manchaca Road. She worked for the Lighthouse into the early 2010s, retiring for good.  She was 94 years old when she retired.

Agnes retired several times during her stint from the 1980s to the 2010s.  Upon each retirement, we gave her a “send-off” cake.  She always came back within weeks – not wanting to stay at home. We accused her of retiring just to get some cake.  She did often ask if she was getting a cake whenever her birthday came around.  We always gave her a cake because she was our oldest employee, and certainly the longest time associate of the Lighthouse.  She was the inspiration for us to begin the monthly birthday cake tradition for all employees at the Lighthouse.

Agnes was always a competitive worker and put out good quality work.  She did a lot to bring production levels up in any department she worked because she often challenged other workers to beat her output. There exists a VHS tape where she was one of the employees interviewed by DPSC when the Lighthouse was given the JWOD Vender of the Year Award (1998, ‘99?).  She was putting end clips on trouser belts at the time.

A short time after her final retirement, she fell at home and broke her hip.  Healing did not come and she passed away at age 95. Many Lighthouse employees attended her funeral.

The following year, we had decided to add another meal for the Lighthouse employees since it was a long stretch from Christmas dinner to the Memorial Day fish-fry (the annual awards dinner in April had not started up yet).  Since Agnes had talked often about the big breakfasts she and her stand operators made back in the day, we decided to name the January breakfast in honor of her:  “Agnes O’Neals Annual New Years Pancake Breakfast”.  (we often had descriptive names for our meals…like our ”Dog Days of Summer Ice Cream Social”, and “Hot Dogs!, Hot Dogs!, Any Way You Want ‘Em”).

A side note: I could be mistaken, but I believe Agnes told me she once operated a stand at Capital Chevrolet when it was located downtown at 5th & Lamar. She remembered a younger William Cromwell.

headshot of Jerry Mayfield

These tales are written best to my memory, definitely in the ballpark. 

-Jerry Mayfield, January 2022