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Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Former Sen. Joe O’Neill dies. St. Paul lawyer’s motto: ‘Community service is the rent you pay as a citizen’

Joseph T. “Joe” O’Neill, a prominent St. Paul attorney, former Republican state legislator, law professor and community leader, died Tuesday of natural causes in hospice care at the Lilydale Senior Center. He was 90.

His surviving family members also described O’Neill as a “supporter of education, man of strong Christian faith, devoted and fun-loving family man and life-long resident of St. Paul.”

St. Paul native and former Minnesota legislator Joseph T. O’Neill was honored April 27, 2006 with the “Outstanding Achievement Award” by the University of Minnesota. The award recognized his long, distinguished record of public service in the state. He died Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2022, of natural causes in hospice care at the Lilydale Senior Center. He was 90. (Pioneer Press)

He practiced law in St. Paul for more than 50 years and was co-founder and partner at the O’Neill, Grills and O’Neill law firm.

First elected to the Minnesota House in 1966 from a district in the southwest corner of the city, O’Neill served in that chamber for two terms before running for the Senate in 1970. He also served two terms in that body before he retired in 1976 His fellow Republicans elected him minority leader during his final term.

“Joe was a gifted speaker,” said former DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe. “He had a flair, and as a lawyer he was an effective debater and delivered clear messages. He was thorough, paid attention to details and could be tough when he had to be.”

My particularly admired O’Neill’s commitment to serving the entire state of Minnesota and not just his St. Paul district. “He understood he was a state senator.”

During Moe’s first term in 1971, O’Neill invited him to a meeting with constituents in St. Paul. He told the group he represented part of one city, one county and one school district, and then asked Moe to describe his northwestern Minnesota district that included three counties and 28 cities. Moe said O’Neill wanted to expand his constituents’ understanding of the rest of Minnesota.

O’Neill was Ken Kirkpatrick’s first customer when he opened his “Capital Barbers and Stylists” shop in the basement of the State Office Building in 1972, and “we’ve been friends ever since,” Kirkpatrick said Wednesday. During their first haircut, he said he mentioned that his adopted son Josh from Vietnam needed surgery but Kirkpatrick’s insurance company refused to cover it.

Shortly after O’Neill left the shop, he phoned the barber and said, “Go ahead with (the surgery). They’re going to cover it.”

“Joe was really a good guy,” Kirkpatrick said.

O’Neill attended Luke’s Catholic Grade School and graduated from St. Thomas Academy in 1949. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1953 and a law degree from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1956. He served as legal counsel in the US Air Force during active duty from 1956 to 1959 and in the reserves until 1972.

Former State Sen.  Joseph O'Neill.
Former State Sen. Joseph O’Neill (Courtesy of Minnesota Legislature)

As a community leader, O’Neill served as chairman of the St. Paul Civic Center Authority as it secured funding for the Xcel Energy Center and the National Hockey League expansion with the Minnesota Wild in 2000. He also was named outstanding Jaycees chapter president; received outstanding alumnus awards from St. Thomas Academy, Notre Dame and the U law school, where he also taught law classes from 2004 to 2013; was an advisor to St. Joseph’s Hospital, helped create a legal aid program, and served on the 1991 Final Four and Super Bowl committees. In addition, he proudly served as “Mr. Pat” of St. Patrick’s Day in 1979.

His motto was: “Community service is the rent you pay as a citizen.”

“Although these awards were meaningful,” his survivors wrote, “his most cherished recognition was being a father and ‘Bumpa.’ Joe loved family cabin time at White Bear Lake and Round Lake, Wis., family vacations to Marco Island, Fla., and Ireland, plus golf with five sons… and scoring his famous hole in one! Dad loved connecting with his large extended family, wide circle of friends and community members.”

O’Neill was preceded in death by his wife of 50 years, Nancy; son, Tom (Laurie); three sisters, Dolly, Laura and Joanie; one brother, Jim; and son-in-law Joe Rogers. He is survived by brother and law partner, Pat; and children, Kathleen, Joe (Felicia), Maureen Rogers, John (Molly), Michael (Beth), Kevin (Catherine) and Shelagh (Mark) Sheeser; 25 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.

A Mass of Christian Burial will be held at 10 am Saturday, Jan. 29, with visitation from 8:30 to 9:45 am at the Church of the Assumption, 51 W. 7th St., St. Paul. A private family interment will be at Resurrection Cemetery.

In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to St. Thomas Academy or Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.

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