Son Of A Legend, Tom O'Neill Cuts His Own Path

By Greg O’Brien, Boston Irish Reporter

(Ed. Note: The O’Neill roots run deep on the Cape. The late Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill lived an active retirement in Harwich with his wife Millie, playing golf, contributing to the local food pantry and assisting with various charities. His son, Tom, former Massachusetts lieutenant governor and a man of influence in New England politics, has spent much time on the Cape with family and business ventures. The following profile of Tom O’Neill appeared in this month’s Boston Irish Reporter.)

In the lobby of O’Neill and Associates at 31 New Chardon Street, not far from the State House, is an imposing black and white photograph of a father and son. Almost sepia in tone, it cuts through generations of Boston politics like a spoon through chowder. In the photograph the father is leaning to the son, who seems to be hanging on every word. Larger than life, the late Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill jr.—the distinguished Speaker of the U.S House of Representatives and “a big man who never became a big shot,” as a friend recently noted—is very much a presence here. You can see it in the son’s face.

At 60, in the “sixth inning” of his life, as he terms it, Thomas P. O’Neill III, who served as Massachusetts lieutenant governor from 1975 to 1983 and now heads a seasoned team of government and public relations professionals, is becoming more and more his father’s son with the trademark tuft of white hair, a large bulbous noise, a “Hiyah, darlin’” grin, and piercing blue eyes that can see into the back room of any Boston establishment. Off the lobby, the south wall of a well-appointed conference room, the color of eelgrass at sunset, is framed with father-son memories and rows of photos of Tom with the likes of Ted Kennedy, George Bush, Bill Clinton and other political luminaries—both Democrat and Republican.

No one has to tell you that Tom O’Neill and his firm are well connected.  Everything here speaks to a knack for opening doors and understanding the principles of marketing and the process of government. Beyond the photographs, strategically placed newspaper clips testify to this fact. The branding is everywhere. Even the paper hand towels in the bathroom are embossed with the company name. (Maybe it’s the Irish in me, but the hand towels were too nice, so I reached for the Kleenex.)

At 11:15 am on a steamy morning in mid June, about 45 minutes after the appointed time and right on schedule for the multi-tasking O’Neill, the son enters the room. He is tanned, appears relaxed, and is dressed smartly in a blue shirt, red tie, gray pants, and black loafers, no sox. Fashion aside, in every other way—body language, tone and personality—he reminds a visitor of the father. And on this day, five days before Father’s Day and a week after the dedication of a Big Dig tunnel in his father’s memory, all the son wants to talk about is his dad.

“I miss him terribly,” says O’Neill, recalling the gritty North Cambridge neighborhood where his parents were raised and where he grew up. “The world remembers Tip O’Neill as a politician. We remember him as a father, and a pretty good one!” says O’Neill, the oldest son, noting that many of his father’s lessons were “on the run or drive by,” but were lasting. “My dad was around mostly on weekends, but he made sure they were family-oriented weekends, spending time with Mom and all five of the children. He had a good sense of everything—from the neighborhood where we lived on up. He wanted to make sure we all got a good education, most especially his own children, and that we were taught the work ethic and shown values in life. We all worked at an early age, and understood the principles of loyalty—that we came from a neighborhood, that we had a family, and that we had a God.”

Among the greatest lessons his father taught him, O’Neill says, was an instruction that was simple and to the point. “Dad would always stress to us: You live in a working class neighborhood, and your father is a Congressman. Even though you don’t have money, you enjoy prestige. Don’t ever take advantage of it.” A man of many blessings, Tip O’Neill’s greatest gift, the son adds, was his “love of people and his ability to navigate through life.” When the Speaker died of cardiac arrest at age eighty-one on January 5, 1994, President Bill Clinton eulogized him as one of the nation's “most prominent and loyal champions of American workers” and as a man who “genuinely loved politics and people.”

At an early age, O’Neill had a gut that his father was special. “I had a sense growing up, I think we all did, that he was different from everyone else’s father.” It was a revelation confirmed in the third grade in 1952 when his father was first elected to Congress. “But we were not allowed to stay home and celebrate,” says O’Neill. “My father insisted we were in school the next day. It was a signal to the nuns and to the neighborhood that nothing was going to change or be taken advantage of.”

There were, however, to be some fleeting family windfalls, like the time O’Neill got an “A” in behavior in the seventh grade, and then told a nun in earnest that he didn’t deserve it. “You know, Mr. O’Neill,” the nun replied, “If I gave you what you deserve, you would flunk.” She promptly gave O’Neill an “F” for deportment, and got word back to the congressman. The next morning O’Neill was awoken by a strong backhand to his backside. “You know,” his father said with great aggravation, “I don’t have anything in life to give you, but for God sakes, learn to take advantage of what you have. You have a good personality, use it!”

It was a lesson and a backhand O’Neill never forgot, as he slowly embraced his father’s personality. Asked about the physical resemblance today, his eyes light up like vapor lights at Fenway. “Hey, I look like ‘em!” He is clearly proud of the fact. “When I get up in the morning and stare into the mirror, it’s frightening,” O’Neill jokes. “Actually, I wish I looked more like my Mom.”

O’Neill’s late mother Mildred (“Millie” Chabot-Miller) also had a strong sway on her son. “My Mom was very exacting, practical, and religious,” says O’Neill. “She was very much into the community and very much by herself. She had a defined streak of intelligence and privacy that carried her through life.”

Tip’s partner in every way, Millie O’Neill ultimately became the “godmother to the Democratic Party,” as House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi once called her. “She was independent and had to be,” says O’Neill, “ just dealing with my father’s Washington schedule and raising the family by herself during the week required this.” The loner factor instilled great confidence in her and in her children. “Thanks to my mother, I have the ability,” says O’Neill, “to go off and be by myself for any period of time.” The gift of solitude, he adds, is a stroke of fortune in the hectic world of business and politics.

O’Neill’s parents connected at an early age. They met at St. John’s High School, now North Cambridge Catholic. “Mom was a freshman and dad was a junior,” says O’Neill. “They were just two poor kids who helped each other in school, and I think that beyond the physical attraction, they just grew together.”

The O’Neill roots run deep in North Cambridge. A third generation Irishman whose family came from Mallow, County Cork, O’Neill’s grandfather, Thomas P. O’Neill sr. was a bricklayer, who laid brick at Harvard Yard, and served one term on the Cambridge City Council, then called the Common Council, in 1899. His brother had served on the council earlier, the start of a long O’Neill family tenure in politics. It was O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase. After the loss of his city council seat, O’Neill’s grandfather coined the phrase, the centerpiece of his son’s political life, “All politics is local.” He became a ward boss after becoming Superintendent of Sewers, now Superintendent of Public Works, holding the job from 1902 to 1941. “It was a great political base, from which my father ran for office,” says O’Neill.

Early on, tragedy struck the O’Neill household—Tip’s mother, Ann, died from complications at his birth. “It’s a little know fact,” O’Neill says. “My father, like the Irish, never talked about it. I don’t remember his talking about it once, but I know it had an affect on him.” Tip’s father then remarried, and the family stayed in the neighborhood.

With family history firmly and directing his paths, Tom O’Neill attended the same high school as his parents and followed in his father’s footsteps to Boston College, which in those days was making the transition from a commuter school to a national university. He graduated with a degree in education, and taught for a week and a half at Watertown High School before abruptly quitting. “It was the closest thing to incarceration I’d ever experienced,” he recalls. “It just wasn’t for me.”

After talking to the dean at the BC business school, he determined his strength was in sales and after six months of training in New York, he got a job in Boston selling stocks and bonds for a company called Harris Upham, which later became a part of Smith Barney. While at Harris Upham, O’Neill engaged in politics, running his father’s reelection campaign. “There was an expectation as the oldest son that I would go into politics some day, be a candidate for office. I learned I had a knack for it.”

And he liked it. In 1972, he left Upham Harris to run for a seat in the legislature, the same district his father had represented, from Herald Square in North Cambridge to Belmont Hill. He won, but left after a term with the same angst he had over teaching. “It was awful, too confining,” he says. “You weren’t in control of your destiny.”

He still had a bug for politics. So as an “exit strategy,” he decided in 1974 to run for lieutenant governor. He assumed he could win the Democratic nomination with his dad’s name and his own modest accomplishments, running on a ticket with either Mike Dukakis or Bob Quinn. “But at that point, no one was going to beat the Republican incumbents (Gov.) Frank Sergeant and (Lt. Gov.) Donald Dwight,” recalls O’Neill. “ I figured if I just won the nomination, I’d reserve the right to go off and do my thing and come back and run again some day. But that August, too many criminals had escaped from state jails and the economy turned a bit.”

Dukakis and O’Neill were elected. During his term, O’Neill created and administered the Office of Federal-State Relations in Boston and Washington, continuing that role in his Ed King Administration tenure. After leaving office in 1983, O’Neill—now an experienced liaison—created a Boston PR firm that merged with communications consultant Pamela McDermott to become McDermott/O’Neill & Associates. After the two departed company, the firm was sold in 1999 to a unit of the Omnicom Group of New York. O’Neill stayed on, representing clients like Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, manager of the Central Artery/Ted Williams Tunnel. In 2003, O’Neill reacquired the assets of his old firm, along with the staff and clients. Today, O’Neill and Associates is a full service communications, government relations and public relations firm, specializing in how government, business and the media work, with clients ranging from W.B. Mason, to Harvard Pilgrim Health Care to the South Korean government.  

Does O’Neill miss politics?

“Absolutely, I miss it,” he says. “Of course. But do I want to get off the couch on a Saturday afternoon and attend a ground breaking in order to become the next governor or the next U.S. Senator, well I suppose if I did, I’d be doing it. I haven’t yet.”

Sounding like his father, he adds, “I’ve built a good organization with wonderful people, and they have families and homes and need to educate their children. This is a real machine today, and I feel responsible for it.”

The talk returns to his father. “The secret to life, my father taught me, is doing what you want to do, and achieving what you must,” he says. “I’ve been pretty lucky so far with a good family and a good life.” O’Neill spends as much time as he can with his two children, daughter Leigh, 25 who just graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a graduate degree, and his son Tom, 19, a student at NYU. He and his wife, Jackie, who met at Boston College, are now separated.

None of this good fortune, O’Neill says, has happened by chance. Like his father, he is a man of faith, a conviction that has help him navigate the cross currents of life. Asked if he has a close personal relationship with his God, he pauses as if the question is awkward, then replies, “The Lord? Yes, I talk to Him. And He keeps telling me to do what I believe in.”

Not a bad game plan in the sixth inning of a life. welcomes thoughtful comments and the varied opinions of our readers. We are in no way obligated to post or allow comments that our moderators deem inappropriate. We reserve the right to delete comments we perceive as profane, vulgar, threatening, offensive, racially-biased, homophobic, slanderous, hateful or just plain rude. Commenters may not attack or insult other commenters, readers or writers. Commenters who persist in posting inappropriate comments will be banned from commenting on