Gov. William A. O’Neill died Nov. 24 following a long battle with emphysema. The longest serving chief executive in the modern history of the state was a strong supporter of The Hundred Club. He delivered the main address at the club’s annual meeting on several occasions while he was governor and continued to attend the sessions after he left office. Also, he regularly attended the dinner following the club’s golf tournaments.
A recipient of the club’s Distinguished Public Service Award, Mr. O’Neill was named an Honorary Life Member in 1997 during the presidency of Peter H.Guerra While governor, Mr. O’Neill made certain that State Police operations were adequately funded. Firefighters were also of special concern. During his final year in office, Mr. O’Neill provided the funds for the construction of the Connecticut Fire Academy, Windsor Locks.
Mr. O’Neill is credited with playing a major role in the construction of the Law Enforcement Memorial, Meriden.
Born in Hartford Aug. 16, 1930, the son of Joseph and Frances Quinn O’Neill, he grew up in East Hampton and graduated from the local high school. Mr. O’Neill attended New Britain Teachers’ College (now Central Connecticut State University) and theUniversity ofHartford. During the Korean Conflict he was amember of the U.S. Air Force. As a turret gunner on B-29 aircraft, he flew several combat missions.
The proprietor of O’Neill’s Tavern in East Hampton, a business started by his father, he was active in local government before being elected to the House of Representatives in 1966. By 1975 he was its majority leader.
In 1978 he was elected lieutenant governor and succeeded Gov. Ella T. Grasso when illness forced her resignation Dec. 31, 1980.
As governor, Mr. O’Neill reorganized the higher education system, raised the salaries of all teachers and increased the funding for practically all people oriented programs. Following the collapse of the Mianus River Bridge in Greenwich he launched a 10-year $6.5 billion infrastructure renewal program.
Mr. O’Neill won gubernatorial elections in 1982 and ‘86. In 1990 he announced his retirement. In January, 1991 he returned to the O’Neills’ home in East Hampton.
During the Mass of Christian Burial in St. Patrick’s Church, East Hampton, Gov.M. Jodi Rell said “He (Mr. O’Neill) never lost himself in the glory of being governor. He was simply Bill O’Neill, someone who loved politics and public service” She noted that Mr. O’Neill was too often underestimated and under appreciated.Mrs. Rell looked at his widow and said, “Nikki, thank you for sharing him with us.”
Rev. Charles R. LeBlanc, pastor of St. Patrick’s, declared that Mr. O’Neill was “the salt of the earth.” Two longtime friends, Atty. James Wade and former state Senator George Hannon, also spoke. Three bishops and several priests were present in the sanctuary. Mr. O’Neill was buried in the Veterans’ Cemetery in Middletown. He leaves his wife of 45 years, Natalie Scott Damon O’Neill, a retired school teacher.