In NA’s “Year of Friendship,” Two Alums Cherish a Friendship Built Through Debating Ideas

When Brian O’Neill ’04 and Jonathan Zelig ’04 were classmates at Norfolk Academy, their friendship caught the attention of Headmaster Dennis Manning, because they held opposing perspectives on many subjects, particularly in the political realm, and they debated fiercely.  

“They were the closest of friends, despite their divergent political views,” Manning said, as he introduced the two men, who spoke to the Upper School for the Friday chapel before Field Day. “They had the most spirited intellectual discussions. It shows you can have disparate views, and still love and care for one another.”

After NA, the pair continued as they had begun—following diverging paths. Brian O’Neill attended University of Virginia as a Jefferson Scholar, and he began working as a consultant; he now is a partner at a global consulting firm in Atlanta. Jonathan Zelig headed west to Pomona College in Claremont, CA and earned a law degree at Yale; he is a partner at Day Pitney in Boston, working on insurance cases. However, they did share a another pre-professional experience on their journey: Both did internships at Wilbanks, Smith & Thomas Asset Management where Trustee Larry Bernert '81 is a principal.

The friendship they forged at NA has not faltered in their 15 years away, and in fact, they have found more common ground. In their conversational presentation, they energetically agreed on several matters, starting with the importance of the school’s Honor System.

Both men said that their professional success in different fields was built on an ability to build relationships of trust. As a lawyer, Zelig said he remains constantly aware that persuasion in a courtroom depends upon developing a sense of trust and respect with a judge or jury. “The moment you lose the trust of the person you are trying to convince, you have lost the argument,” he said.

O’Neill said he was passionate about Norfolk Academy’s approach to honor, so he joined the Honor Committee at UVA and became intensely focused on how it operated there, even as he sought to bring some changes to it. “I learned a lot about how to change an organization. Really digging into something is more valuable in learning life lessons,” he noted, contrasting that with dabbling in a variety of activities at college in an attempt to gain “credentials.”

Both men spoke forcefully about the power of a liberal arts education and criticized the current cultural moment, which they felt has become overly focused on prestige and credentials. They share a conviction that social media is eroding the quality of dialogue and real-world interactions.  As part of the first generation of social media users—both men were in the first wave of college students who jumped into Facebook—they have since developed concerns about it and other similar platforms. 

In closing, they encouraged students to embrace surprises in life. Zelig shared, in part for the benefit of seniors who had to seal their college destinations by May 1, that Pomona was not his top choice college. He had not visited the campus and had no intention of heading to California but applied due to encouragement from then-Director of College Counseling Paul Feakins; it was one of two schools (in a list of ten) where he was admitted.

“It was a phenomenal experience,” Zelig said. “Things don’t always work out the way you think they are going to, and that is a good thing.”
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