Pete O'Neal had spent more than a decade chronicling the world's darker side, as a crime photographer for WMAR, Channel 2, when he became one of the people on the other side of the camera.
Four years ago, in March 1993, his 74-year-old mother, Jeromia, was beaten to death by a boarder she had taken in. O'Neal, who discovered his mother's body lying on her dining room floor after he tried to phone her all day, was shattered.
"To say that we were close would be an understatement," he says. "I would almost say that we were one. I was an only child, and my father came and went. My mother was my father, my brother, sister, playmate and friend. Oh yeah, I was totally, totally a mama's boy, big-time."
But in the years since, he's refused simply to dwell on the tragedy. Inspired by his mother's nurturing, O'Neal turned his energies toward doing what he could to ensure that children are brought up with the same love and support she showed him.
The result is "It's Kindertime," WMAR's wonderfully spirited Saturday-morning kids' program. Together with John "KinderMan" Taylor, who's been teaching and entertaining area schoolchildren since 1986, O'Neal -- who serves as producer, director and all-around guiding light -- has put together a half-hour mix of puppets, balloons, magic tricks, zoo animals and fun facts that kids should eat right up.
"When Pete called me up, I told him 'I've been waiting for you and waiting and waiting,' " says the KinderMan, who'd been looking for someone to get his act on the air. "Pete said, 'I'll take care of one half; you take care of your half.' "
The latest ratings show that more than 25,000 viewers are tuning in to WMAR every Saturday morning at 7: 30 to watch the KinderMan and his guests perform before groups of children from throughout the metropolitan area. They struggle to decode the show's word of the day and enjoy animation provided by students at UMBC.
It's an eclectic and irresistible mix, one that O'Neal, while admitting the show is only a third of what he'd like it to be, is confident his mother would love.
"I find myself constantly thinking of my mom," he says. "She'd have loved being a volunteer with the kids, singing the songs and telling stories. I miss tremendously not being able to have her involved in this."
"This is a mission for him, rather than a job," says Karen Rupprecht, who writes many of the songs for "It's Kindertime" and serves as the show's associate producer. "He feels he's been called for a higher purpose he feels like if one kid gets turned around because of this show, he's done his job."
Although he doesn't talk about his mother much, Rupprecht says, "it's very obvious to me that he misses her, that this is very much what he feels she wanted him to do."
Jeromia O'Neal was in her early 40s, a transplant from the small town of Rocky Mount, N.C., when she gave birth to her only child. Young Pete's father, Walter, was rarely around, breezing through his family's life only occasionally.
"I knew him, but he wasn't there as like a mentor or anything," his son recalls.
To make ends meet, Jeromia O'Neal worked as a domestic three days a week, cleaning homes for families in Baltimore County and bringing home, at most, $15 a day.
"But she did a lot with that $15," Pete O'Neal recalls. "There were a lot more 'A-rab' guys around back then, and she would stop the wagon all the time. I grew up on collard greens, corn, stuff she could buy off the wagons. I never was hungry. I make 20 times what she made, and I can't stretch a dollar the way she did."
Mother and son grew up extraordinarily close, spending entire days sitting on the front step of their Eden Street home, Jeromia spinning yarns about life in North Carolina, about riding the bus between there and Baltimore.
"You'd sit there on the step, and all you could see was up and down the street," O'Neal recalls. "But she would tell me how she got on the Trailways. It was the way she would tell it, how she would get on the bus and get out her peanuts and start shucking them, how she would look out the window and she could see all the farmland gradually changing to the city streets. The next thing I knew, I'd be traveling with her.
"It was much more visual, even though it was words, than ZTC anything I could think of as a photographer. I used my imagination, and anything I wanted to put in there, I'd put in."
Even after he'd married and moved to Randallstown, son and mother remained close, talking at least once every day. Which is why O'Neal became worried when he couldn't reach her one March day.
After making his daily rounds with a WMAR reporter, O'Neal drove one of the station's vans to his mom's home. Worried that something may have happened, he called ahead to have a city police officer meet him there. Together, they jimmied open a locked door and found her lying on the floor. She was already dead.
A changed man
O'Neal took two weeks off and returned to his job a changed man. By his own admission, he became less willing to intrude on crime scenes, less willing to stick his camera in the faces of grieving mothers, less able to detach himself from the emotions that accompany such tragedies.
"I thought about my mother," he says. "I thought that maybe I should start something, something with a more positive image. I have a good reputation at the station, so I thought, maybe if I pitch something, they'd go for it. Like maybe a kids' show."
The idea, O'Neal says, was for a show that crossed racial lines, that stressed how easy it can be for people to get along, and that would remind children that there's no end to what they can accomplish.
So pitch he did, and while station management seemed receptive to the idea, they let it languish for nearly two years. Then, just as he was about to sell the idea to a rival station, new general manager Steven Gigliotti arrived at WMAR and gave the project the go-ahead.
"He brought that concept to me, and I was very impressed with his passion," Gigliotti says. "But I was even more impressed with how professionally he approached the whole project. It has some rough parts to it, but they work on it all the time, they refine it all the time, and they're getting a great deal of audience response to it. We are very proud to be associated with it."
The result, filmed at schools and locations throughout the area, as well as at a studio set up at the Hunt Valley Mall, looks like a winner for all concerned. WMAR gets a show that helps it meet the FCC's recent requirements for increased children's programming; the KinderMan gets an even larger audience for his act; sponsor BGE gets some good exposure; O'Neal gets to do something that he believes is making a difference.
And Jeromia O'Neal leaves a legacy that has people smiling -- especially her son.
"She was fun to be with, was a good person and treated people with respect," O'Neal says. "Everything I've done, all those things that influenced me, all that came from a little old lady sitting on a stoop in East Baltimore and bringing me up the right way."
Pub Date: 12/10/97