In Memoriam: Cathy O’Neil

Cathy was born on January 13, 1964 in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Her father, Robert O’Neil, was a U.S. Army veteran and town attorney who instilled in her an interest in the law and a love of country and public service. Her mother, Gisela Pick O’Neil, was born in Germany and married Robert after World War II. Gisela was a fashion designer and the source of Cathy’s remarkable artistic creativity, tenacity, and party-hosting skills. 

Growing up, Cathy was a figure skater, dancer, actress, and debater and a top student in Cape Cod’s public schools. She went to college at the University of Virginia, where she founded a freshman theater company, was selected into the Raven Society, lived on the Lawn, and graduated with High Honors. 

Cathy then headed to Harvard University, where in 1991 she earned both a J.D. degree cum laude from the Law School and a Masters in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government. She performed in and produced shows for the Harvard Law School Drama Society and served on the Board of Student Advisors, where one of her duties was to orient new students. 

In August 1988, David Nahmias, a Duke grad from Atlanta, was assigned in Cathy’s orientation group. They started dating that fall, fell in love, and got married in June 1992 on a beautiful day on Cape Cod. After law school, Cathy served as a law clerk for a federal judge in Boston, then began work as an associate in the Washington office of Davis Polk & Wardwell, a national law firm, while Dave clerked. 

From the start, Cathy was an outstanding lawyer, a beautiful writer with tremendous analytical ability. But she always wanted to be a federal prosecutor and to get into the courtroom, and in 1995 she got her chance, when she and Dave were both hired as Assistant U.S. Attorneys in Atlanta. 

They soon bought the house in Dunwoody that she loved (and improved through multiple renovation projects). Cathy quickly became a legal star, earning a national reputation as a superb trial lawyer as she prosecuted some of the largest and most complicated narcotics and money laundering organizations in the country. Her ability to present complicated cases to juries and her spell-binding, no-notes opening and closing statements were admired by other prosecutors, defense counsel, and judges alike, as was her devotion to the integrity of the criminal justice system. 

In late 1998, the incoming Atlanta Bar Association President, who was a public defender, saw Cathy’s Drama Society posters in her office while discussing a case and raised the possibility of her helping to organize a “follies” show for the bar. Cathy took the idea and ran with it, producing, directing, choreographing, writing, and performing in “A Courthouse Line” in March 1999. 

That somewhat chaotic one-night show turned into 11 more “Bard” shows, each more polished and elaborate than the last — scripted two-act musical parodies performed multiple times to packed houses in large theaters, by remarkably talented all-lawyer casts of up to 70 singers, dancers, actors, and musicians. 

Cathy was the heart of the Bard shows, writing, directing, choreographing, singing, dancing, and sweeping the floors for most of the shows, which have been the largest fundraiser for the Atlanta Bar Foundation and its charitable works. 

After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Dave moved back to Washington to work at the Justice Department, where he coordinated terrorism cases nationwide. A few months later, Cathy joined him when she became the Associate Director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces program, which funds and coordinates multiple federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that conduct the biggest narcotics investigations and prosecutions across the nation. 

Cathy traveled extensively to reinvigorate the program, and in 2003 she was named the Director of the program and an Associate Deputy Attorney General, responsible for overseeing all of the Justice Department’s anti-drug and money laundering functions.

The year 2003 also brought the first of Cathy’s greatest treasures – her son Steven. The second – Michael – followed in 2005. As great a lawyer, leader, and artist as Cathy was, she was an even better mother, and she devoted herself to her boys, helping them to become smart, confident, kind, and successful young men. 

In late 2004, Dave was confirmed as the U.S. Attorney in Atlanta, and the family moved back. Cathy left her beloved Justice Department and became a partner at King & Spalding, an international law firm based in Atlanta. Working on both government investigation and white-collar defense matters and business litigation for clients such as CVS and Delta Air Lines, Cathy continued to enhance her reputation as one of the top litigators in the nation, and was so recognized by a variety of publications. 

The return to Atlanta also returned Cathy to her leadership of the Bard Shows, and her work in bringing together lawyers and the community through those shows was recognized by the Atlanta Bar Association with two different lifetime achievement awards.

The circle of Cathy’s friends has always been wide, and she made many more through her new firm and the boys’ schools and teams. And as always, she was Dave’s biggest supporter when he was appointed as a Justice on the Georgia Supreme Court in 2009 and won statewide elections to that position in 2010 and 2016. 

In August 2016, Cathy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She made an awe-inspiring recovery from major surgery in time to direct and even perform in “A Courthouse Line XII: Mock the Vote,” in November. But her disease returned in January 2017, and despite her gritty endurance of chemotherapy and other treatments, she succumbed on October 1, 2017. 

Her family and friends had a chance to say goodbye, and the tributes they have given her reveal what Cathy meant to so many people she touched during her extraordinary but far too short life. She will never be forgotten.