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William O'Neil, directed Crusaders Marching Unit
June 29, 1949 -- Oct. 18, 2008

William "Billy" O'Neil, who directed Crusaders Marching Unit performances for President Gerald Ford and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, died Saturday in Erie County Home and Infirmary, Alden. He was 59.

Born in Buffalo, Mr. O'Neil attended Grover Cleveland High School, where he played football, excelling on both offense and defense.

Considered a fine dancer, skater and musician -- he played percussion instruments -- Mr. O'Neil particularly loved the type of precision marching known as Fancy Drill and marched with the Flying Clouds Drill Team before helping to form the Crusaders.

As drillmaster, he led the Crusaders to several state and national championships. The unit marched in Miami, Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and performed for notables including Ford and Jackson, and also entertained for the Buffalo Braves' last game in Memorial Auditorium.

Mr. O'Neil helped start other drill teams and was a founder of the citywide Drill-a-Rama, now in its 34th year. As co-chairman of the Juneteenth Parade Committee for many years, he helped turn the annual festival parade into one of the state's largest.

He was a longtime Erie County employee.

Survivors include two sons, DeShawn F. Leeper and William Jr.; a daughter, Janean T. Smith; his mother, Frankie; two brothers, Lawrence Jr. and Danny; three sisters, Diane Shakoor, Kathleen and Frances; and his close friend, Marcus O. Brown Sr.

A service will be at noon Thursday in St. Martin De Porres Catholic Church, 555 Northampton St., after a wake at 11.


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