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Joseph O'Neill, Mayor, Scholar, Dies at 71

Matthew Hersh

Joseph P. O'Neill, the Princeton Borough mayor whose approach to governing blended sharp intellect with political common sense, died Friday morning from complications from leukemia. He was 71.

Borough Council President Mildred Trotman assumed the role of interim mayor following Mr. O'Neill's death. The Princeton Borough Democratic Municipal Committee has until November 4 to recommend three names to Council for mayoral consideration. Council will then have 30 days to select a new mayor.

A new mayor will serve one year, whereupon a mayoral election will take place for a term that will extend through Mr. O'Neill's unexpired term. His four-year term will expire January 1, 2008.

There has yet to be an indication as to who will be chosen for the post, though it is likely that one or more of the candidates are already members of Council.

The mayor, whose remains were cremated, will be remembered at a service Thursday, October 27, at 2:30 p.m. at the Princeton University Chapel.

Mr. O'Neill was less a politician in the classic sense than he was a student of his elected position. In an interview earlier this year, he explained that he would write reports on complicated subjects such as zoning and affordable housing not only for the benefit of his readership, but to help himself better understand particular tasks at hand.

"He approached the Borough problems with uncommon intelligence and integrity, and he'll be sorely missed," said Councilman Andrew Koontz, who is also chair of the municipal committee faced with selecting the three potential candidates for mayor.

It was because of that "uncommon intelligence" that he was remembered as a person of intellectual rather than political conviction.

"He was a champion of all champions," Township Committeeman Lance Liverman said Friday, adding that mayor's loss will be felt in both Borough and Township governments, and throughout the entire community.

Mr. O'Neill's tenure as mayor reflected his professional life. A retired principal research scientist at Education Testing Service and a one-time scholar-in-residence at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Mr. O'Neill was also the first Jesuit student to study at the doctoral level at the Princeton Theological Seminary. His impressive list of accomplishments includes directing a $10.3 million program involving 75 projects in the United States and Canada to improve the quality of leadership in churches and synagogues.

He was the author of published books, reports, and articles and the recipient of a number of educational and religious research grants.

Mr. O'Neill was also the executive director of the Conference of Small Private Colleges, a founding president of Hudson County Community College, and served as acting university chaplain and lecturer in ethics at Georgetown University.

As mayor, he exhibited special qualities. He would, for example, answer the phone at Borough Hall on municipal holidays when he put in extra office hours, and he was always accessible at home, saying that the only prerequisite for calling his Queenston Commons home was that it be before 9 p.m.

"He was such a humbling person, he was a dynamite person --- period," said Ms. Trotman, who added that her working relationship began when the two served on the Regional Planning Board of Princeton in the 1980s. In 2001, when the Borough Council chose Mr. O'Neill to serve out the remaining term of Councilman Ryan Stark Lillienthal, who had resigned, Ms. Trotman considered it a gift.

"I said 'Oh my goodness! How could we be so lucky?' I grew to really admire and respect him, and to work alongside him on Council was just rewarding in itself.

"Then, of course, to have him lead us on Council was, hey, you know, another plus."

Mr. O'Neill's illness had become evident over the past nine months. He had lost weight, and it was known that his frequent blood transfusions to keep his white blood cell count up were taxing, but that did not seem to impact his ability to govern. According to his 31-year-old son, Michael O'Neill, the mayor would prepare 24 hours in advance to summon the strength for an anticipated late meeting where affordable housing was on the Borough Council agenda Tuesday nights, or a controversial application were to appear before the Planning Board Thursday nights.

"It was one of the things that kept him alive --- and probably more than the transfusions," Michael said. "He would be tired and exhausted, but he would go to bed really early Monday and he'd take it easy and then Tuesday he'd just go all day long --- and he would get the meetings done on time so he could go to bed on time.

"He just had a whole different energy level when he was working on town business."

This was especially the case toward the end, Michael said.

Mr. O'Neill suffered from what is known as "smoldering leukemia," when the body produces too many immature blood cells, in this case, white blood cells. Under normal circumstances, the transfusions can extend a patient's life for years, but the mayor's illness transformed into acute myeloid leukemia about nine months ago, according to his son.

"It's a relatively rare illness," said Michael, adding that an initial one-month bout of chemotherapy was cut short because the results were "so good." When the leukemia did not go into remission, Mr. O'Neill had the option of handling a more aggressive type of chemotherapy, but it would have involved months of in-patient treatment, rather than out-patient: "and he didn't want that," because, as Michael said, his father wanted to continue his duties as a public servant.

Michael referred back to the papers on zoning and property tax his father would write as a "perfect example" of his desire to serve. "He wrote them and deliberately did not come to a conclusion," Michael said. "I think one of the things that he saw in Princeton is that you have a very well-educated population  those who are involved in politics have thought about issues and have particular beliefs  and they are not likely to change their positions very easily.

"But by presenting the problem and trying to look at it --- whatever the challenges --- from a variety of different viewpoints and talk about all the underlying issues, he was able to use the intelligence of the community itself so people could read this and not be pushed to a conclusion.

"It would help them take a different look at their own preconceptions."

As the mayor does not vote on Borough Council unless it is to break a tie, all that can really be done, Michael said, is to try to influence people.

"I think he realized that when you've got people who are very intelligent, they need to think through the process on their own to come to a conclusion."

Michael, who lives in San Francisco, recalled that during his Princeton visits there would be "lots of phone calls" from people who were upset at some hot-button Borough issue, like the parking garage. "They would present their position, and Joe would list the drawbacks and benefits of that approach. He would show that he had thought through the entire process and try to get people to see the other side of their position.

"He didn't necessarily always win people over, but at the end of the conversation --- you could just tell from the tone of his voice --- that whoever had called had thought 'okay, wow, this guy listened to me, and actually had a lot of ideas.'"

Joseph Patrick O'Neill was born October 25, 1933, in Philadelphia. He and his family moved to Washington, D.C. when he was young. He grew up in Greenbelt, Maryland and attended a Jesuit high school --- the same high school attended by Pat Buchanan.

He entered the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, at 17, immediately after graduation. He receive an artium baccalaureatus in English from Fordham University in 1957 and master's in English in 1958, also from Fordham. He then earned a Ph.L. in philosophy from Woodstock College in 1958.

Mr. O'Neill went on to teach in Osorno, Chile for two years after teaching Latin and English at Loyola High School in Baltimore.

He spent three years in Buenos Aires pursuing a Licentiate of Sacred Theology from the Colegio Maximo which he earned in 1965, and then came back to the States to teach briefly at Georgetown.

"He always liked to say that he taught when Bill Clinton was a student there," Michael said. Whenever someone asked if Clinton had been a student of his, he would answer, "No, I taught ethics."

Mr. O'Neill and his wife, Anne, came to Princeton in 1967 when he began doctoral studies at the Seminary, and moved to their current residence in 1974.

Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand summed up Mayor O'Neill's impact on the community, describing his view as "non-territorial": "When he spoke of Princeton Borough, he had the entire community's interests at heart.

"He had a real 'master plan' vision on everything and could project way into the future."

He understood planning and zoning, but most importantly, Ms. Marchand said, "he understood people."

Mr. O'Neill is survived by his wife of 35 years, Anne Fitzgerald O'Neill; their two children, Chanel Fitzgerald O'Neill of Albuquerque, and Michael Anthony O'Neill of San Francisco; and his brother, James Michael O'Neill, of Washington, D.C. He has two grandchildren: Finnegan Michael and Ella Chanel Ramos-O'Neill, the two children of daughter Chanel and her life-partner, Patricia Corinne Ramos.

The O'Neill family has requested that donations in Mr. O'Neill's memory be made to: The Princeton Public Library Foundation, 65 Witherspoon Street, Princeton, New Jersey 08540.

Donations can also be made to the Princeton Parks Alliance Monument Fund (write "O'Neill Fund" in the memo line), 23 Sergeant Street, Princeton, N.J, 08540.


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