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Hundreds Gather at O'Neill Memorial

Matthew Hersh

Hundreds of residents, elected officials, municipal staff, appointees, and volunteers gathered at the Princeton University Chapel Thursday to remember Borough Mayor Joseph O'Neill as an "innovative" and "far-seeking educator."

The volume of mourners at the memorial service was a testament to the mayor's popularity and the impact he had on the community during his one-a-half-year tenure as mayor, and a lifetime devoted to education, family, and community.

Mr. O'Neill died October 21 after a year-long battle with leukemia.
Remembered as a community servant and family man, Mr. O'Neill was also honored as a mayor who applied his educational background while governing.

"Joe was a modest, patient teacher," said Solomon Arbeiter, who was a colleague of Mr. O'Neill's when the mayor first moved to New Jersey in 1967. Mr. Arbeiter praised the mayor's ability to remain realistic, while holding lofty goals: "He was very astute and clear about what was real and what was achievable."

Mr. Arbeiter went on to commend the mayor's working through state corruption and red tape in becoming a founding president of Hudson County Community College. "I didn't think Joe had much of a chance in Hudson County, but he did it with determination and political acumen."

Mr. Arbeiter spoke of the mayor's ability to absorb all sides of an argument when working with others: "He was a partner; he could hear you, react to it, and get his ideas across without putting yours down."

Another long-time friend, Gene Maeroff, who worked with Mr. O'Neill when he was a scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Foundation, noted the mayor's service as a politician. He said that Mr. O'Neill's passing during the election season serves as a "reminder" that his style of governing was antithetical to common, often corrupt, New Jersey political practices.

"Community service came naturally to him: it wasn't important for him to succeed in politics, but to succeed in life."

Mr. Maeroff pointed to Mr. O'Neill's nearly two decades as a Jesuit priest as a key ingredient in his ability to govern effectively. "He was never preachy," Mr. Maeroff said, but "modest and accepting."

The overall theme of the service, however, was Mr. O'Neill's devotion to his family. Michael O'Neill, the mayor's son, pointed to his father's humble nature, saying that he would have critiqued his own eulogy, because "it made him out to be some kind of superhero."

Michael remembered how he and his father first sat down nearly a year ago to discuss the eulogy they knew might prove to be inevitable. That process in itself was difficult because "Joe was so reticent about himself."
Recalling how his parents first met, Michael emphasized that the driving force behind his father's leaving the church was his more compelling wish to start a family.

That drive translated into the mayor's community service as well, Michael said, and that even as the he grew weaker from his illness, "all of you kept him alive.

"Part of him will live on."

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