Scholarships honoring Carnegie heroes keep legacies alive

Friends and family of Carnegie Hero Jessica Lea Embry created a music and swimming scholarship in her name.
A University of Akron donor renamed his scholarship for Carnegie Hero Hugh Michael O’Neil after hearing of his heroics.

Even after death, some Carnegie heroes are providing for others. Two scholarships have been created in the names of Jessica Lea Embry and Hugh Michael O’Neil.

Embry, a 40-year-old fine arts teacher from Wilmington, North Carolina, lost her life on April 18, 2021, trying to save two young sisters who were pulled into the Atlantic Ocean by strong rip currents off of Kure Beach, North Carolina. Multiple people responded including Embry and Carnegie Hero Rayna Michele Montgomery, a 17-year-old high school student from Stuart, Virginia. Embry reached at least one of the girls in the water, but she was repeatedly submerged by rough surf and eventually lost consciousness. While the girls were eventually brought to shore, firefighters later pulled Embry from the water. Embry could not be revived; she had drowned.

Not only is Embry’s physical presence missed by her family, but her local influence in her biggest passions – music and swimming – are also missed.

“She was amazing,” said Martha Brunetti, Embry’s aunt.

Embry was an accomplished swimmer at Robert C. Byrd High School in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where she attended. She still holds the school’s record in the 200 Individual Medley from 1999.

Embry was also a talented musician with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music. During her career, Embry focused on teaching music to students with disabilities, eventually bringing United Sound to her elementary school. United Sound is a nationwide initiative that pairs students with and without disabilities in a band and orchestra setting.

After her death, her friends appealed to high school alumni for the funds to establish the scholarship in her name.

“Jessica was a unique person who cared about children, and her friends wanted to honor her. They raised $5,000,” said Brunetti.

Applicants for the scholarnship must be involved in the fine arts or swimming programs at Robert C. Byrd High School. Two students have received $1,000 from The Jessica Embry Memorial Scholarship.

The 2022 recipient, Annalise Gentilozzi, said she was honored to receive the scholarship.

“Jessica Embry was known to be an amazing athlete, a stellar musician, and an overall great person. For me to receive the scholarship in the name of such an amazing person, it was truly an honor.”

Gentilozzi attends West Virginia Wesleyan College, where she still swims.

A recent article from the University of Akron paints the history of the Hugh Michael O’Neil Scholarship in honor of Carnegie Hero Hugh Michael O’Neil.

On July 21, 1964, a car containing three people fell into a sinkhole, 30 feet deep and 20 feet across, after the roadway under them collapsed. A number of motorists, including 19-year-old O’Neil, stopped at the scene. With a rope tied around him, O’Neil descended a ladder and dropped 13 feet to the floor of the crater. Arriving Akron Police officer Ronald Rotruck, 27, tied one end of another rope around his waist and also entered the sinkhole. O’Neil forced open a door of the sedan and removed a 13-year-old girl. O’Neil removed his rope and tied her to the lower rungs of the ladder to be hosited to safety. Rotruck helped the driver, 48, from the sedan. While O’Neil took the woman to the ladder, Rotruck returned to the sedan for the third victim. Suddenly, the sandy soil shifted, trapping Rotruck’s feet. The men on the other end of his rope tried to pull him free, but his rope gave way. Rotruck sank to his waist. O’Neil approached Rotruck, but a second shift trapped O’Neil to his chin. The two sank, their bodies and the body of the third person, a girl, 10, were recovered later.

Six years earlier University of Akron alum, Ferdinand Brubaker, donated stock to the Akron university to establish the Ferdinand A. and Lorry Brubaker Scholarship Fund. Brubaker was so moved by O’Neil’s heroic act, that he changed the name of his scholarship to recognize him instead.

In the nearly 60 years since the catastrophe, more than $300,000 has been distributed through approximately 500 scholarships.

“It has helped students not only prepare for professional careers but, for some, it has touched their own deeper sense of purpose,” the article stated.

Emma McIntyre, an O’Neil scholarship recipient majoring in criminology and criminal justice, said the bravery of the men was moving and touched her profoundly.

“It was incredible that he ultimately gave his life to save individuals in need. If I could, I would (thank) Hugh O’Neil for his bravery. It takes a special kind of person to be courageous enough to act,” she said.

To contribute to the Jessica Embry Memorial Scholarship, make checks payable to RCB Alumni Foundation, One Eagle Way, Clarksburg, WV 26301. In the memo line, write: Jessica Embry.

To make a gift to the Hugh Michael O’Neil Scholarship, contact Andrea Collins, assistant director of development special projects, at or 330- 972-2603.

— Griffin Erdely, communications intern