Catherine O'Neill obituary

Other lives: Head of communications at the Terrence Higgins Trust at the height of the HIV epidemic

My friend Catherine O’Neill, who has died aged 54, joined the Terrence Higgins Trust in 1989 as PA to the chief executive, but soon moved to lead the communications department. The charity was at the forefront of the fight against HIV, and Kate, who always had a strong sense of social justice, played a crucial role in their campaigns at a time when there was still a huge stigma around the disease.

Kate was born at home in Leeds, the third of four children of Kevin O’Neill, who worked for the Post Office, and his wife, Grace (nee Wright). In 1977 the family moved to Lincoln and Kate went to St Peter and Paul’s high school where she later became head girl.

She met her future husband, Michael Elson, while studying American Studies at Bulmershe College of Higher Education in Reading, where her stylish clothes and vibrant accessories earned her the nickname “primary colours Kate”. They married in 1995 and had three children.

The family moved in 1998 to Lewisham, south-east London, where Kate became involved in the local community. She was an active member of Lewisham East Labour party and took part of the successful campaign to save Lewisham hospital from cuts to its services. She volunteered as a mentor working with disadvantaged families.

Kate was a keen runner who completed the London marathon twice and for many years she joined in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life on Blackheath with a group of local mums whose children all went to John Ball primary school there. She encouraged those of us who were less athletic as we puffed and panted our way around the course.

She was a generous friend. She had an amazing number of friendship groups, spanning school and college and different stages of her life, and was in two book groups, yet still had time for everyone. Kate was a great listener and was always there, with her beautiful smile, and often with a bunch of flowers, to offer support when it was most needed.

However, Kate was also an intensely private person. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013 she told very few people, as she did not want to be the centre of attention. She was in remission, but the cancer returned this year.

Kate is survived by Michael and their three children, Lily, Ruby and Frank, by her brother, Phil, and her sisters, Gillian and Helen, and by her father.




Nikki Spencer

The GuardianTramp

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