Our January spotlight features Jason Arney-O’Neil. He has led an amazing, successful journey, while overcoming some personal challenges and heartache. Yet, as he shares, he has a lot more to experience in life. It’s been awesome knowing and working alongside Jason. I hope you enjoy his story as much as I did. – Ladd Miller
I was born at United Hospital in Saint Paul, on Elvis’s birthday. I grew up in the City of Newport, next to the train tracks, between Tinuccis and the Refinery. My family live there until the city tore down our home and replaced it with the elevated overpass on 61. We then moved up to Woodbury into the Royal Oaks Neighborhood, where I was close enough to walk to school but chose to drive. I graduated from Woodbury High School in 2004, on my first try, with honors and lettering in football.
Growing up, I was always on the hunt for adventure. During my childhood in Newport, my friends and I would explore the sewers under the elementary, attempt to float down the river on garbage, and frequently ride our bikes to the comic book store in Saint Paul Park. Not much changed as I grew up. Instead of sewers, I enjoy exploring the Southwest. The trash rafts turned into canoe trips. My bike rides went on a little longer, including an Ironman race in 2013. I’ve had an endless thirst to obtain new skills, so every year I try to practice a new skill or hobby.
Being a Firefighter was never an encouraged career choice. Even though I have early memories (since 8 years old) of a police scanner blaring in our family living room. My step dad would listen to the WashCo dispatch like it was an 830-WCCO morning show. Occasionally, he would toss me in the bed of his truck and we would chase fire calls, I’d be bouncing around in the back, rattling around with the empty cans of Pig’s Eye, and we would watch houses burn down. I didn’t pursue my public safety career until I was into my first semester of college at the University of Saint Thomas. I was struggling to adjust to the new life, my highest grade was a D+ and I was redshirted from football because of a shoulder surgery. I grew up with these moments of inflection and feeling of loss. When I was 7, my father had disappeared, leaving my brother and I without saying goodbye. A few years later, when I was 10, three of the most beloved people in my life all died within 6 months of each other. My great grandma, my best friend, and his father – a father figure to me. I found my calling in helping other people. My adversity trained me to stay calm under pressure, my loss gave me the empathy and compassion to understand the hurt and pain of my patients. My first choice was to become a Paramedic, I wanted to save a life. Firefighter was just an attachment.
My first step onto the Woodbury Fire Department started in 2005 when I drove past a hiring sign outside of the Fox Run station. I was 19 years old and working at Subway while going through EMT class at Inver Hills CC. I think the only reason I was hired was because my closest fire station was the Thames Road station, 2240, the house of wisdom. I’d learned so much from that group, I’m still so grateful for all of them. The first few years as a POC was a ride but becoming one of the full-timers was my goal, so I ran a lot of duty crew early on, and I went on as many calls as I could to gain experience. Two years into working as a POC, I worked my way through paramedic training at Century College, before graduating, I was sworn in as a full-time Paramedic/Firefighter with Woodbury Public Safety. I was 23 years old.
My video production skills started at a young age. Before I was 10, My mom would rent my brother and I a VHS camera from Video Vision. We would gather friends and film ourselves mimicking our favorite comedy shows. I carried this early passion for film, art, and comedy into video making while I was with the WFD. It took a lot of help from John Dillon early on to teach me how to use digital editing software, which brought me into the modern age of film and design. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without those early experiences. Today, I use the same skills and I’ve made a new career out of it. I really enjoyed coming back to Woodbury Fire to create the short video for our farewell dinner, I’ll always return to my inception to pay back debts of gratitude.
Taking the leap from public safety to becoming an artist wasn’t the smoothest transition. In 2013, I left the Woodbury Public Safety Department in a fury and with haste, without really planning for my landing. I intentionally gave up the best things in my life in order to stick up for what was right. It was an extremely low point. I found myself on the West Coast in Avila Beach, CA searching for a new passion. One day, I sculpted a gorilla bust in the sand, combining my childhood interests of art and primatology, the sculpture attracted a lot of interest from people walking by. I’d realized I was missing the connections I used to hold with the community back home. Nearly every day, I would go out to the same spot on the beach and sculpt something in the sand. It was therapeutic, dedicating a couple of hours creating something, then letting it wash away. The real joy was having a community to talk to again. I wasn’t great at sculpting, but I was persistent. So, I found a mentor, artist Sigmund De Tonancour, an old hippie sculptor living in a small shack on a creekside apple farm. He became the number one supporter of my art, his mentorship gave me the confidence to become a full-time artist. Today, I’ve continued my public sculpting but in large blocks of snow, and I build dioramas of nature scenes for nature centers around the country. It is nearing 10 years since the start of that journey.
Future plans are hard to predict since I’ve seen so much change in little time. I want to continue my creative career, maybe open my own nature center, or become a farmer. I have alot of life left to experience. When I think back on th past, the one thing that I would tell myself is to follow the flow towards your passion.
Public safety is a selfless career; you’re doing it for somebody else in the future. Train yourself; strengthen your body, understand your psychology, explore other cultures, study your mentors, be compassionate to every living thing around you, be the best version of yourself for somebody else. You won’t regret it!