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Vol. LXI, No. 32
Wednesday, August 8, 2007
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Late Mayor’s Abundant Legacy to Crown Library’s Fall Book Sale

Stuart Mitchner

It is not what we have, but what we enjoy that constitutes our abundance.”

A significant contribution to the abundance of books for the enjoyment of browsers and buyers at the Friends of the Princeton Public Library’s upcoming book sale (October 19-21) will come from the library of Princeton Borough Mayor Joseph O’Neill, who died on October 21, 2005, two years into his first term.

The source of the anonymous quotation above is a T-shirt Anne O’Neill, the mayor’s wife of 35 years, bought at a Buddhist/New Age weekend retreat in 2005. “Joe’s wealth was in the abundance of all the ideas he enjoyed,” she said in a recent interview, “especially the great ideas taken from everyday life that reflect the challenges and wisdom of the human condition.”

Those ideas are manifest in the range of the mayor’s reading. When the October sale opens in the library’s Community Room, special tables featuring his books will offer an overview of a collection that spans an impressive range of academic disciplines. Not all the mayor’s books were in the 20-plus boxes going to the library because the interests of the mayor’s wife and children, Michael and Chantel, are no less varied. A sample of the numerous items that won’t be found at the library sale includes a volume of Children’s Verses by Hillaire Belloc (“Not for the faint of heart”), a Latin version of Alice in Wonderland, and the Oxford English Dictionary. Also missing is the mayor’s collection of vintage Donald Duck comics, which his son Michael sold for him on e-Bay. How many libraries can match a range that takes in Donald Duck and the OED?

During the donation pick-up, while taping together fresh boxes and even helping pack them, Mrs. O’Neill gave a tour of the library, beginning with the shelves of Greeks and Romans, books that were not only “fundamental to his study of philosophy,” she said, but closely identified with his youth since he studied them in the original after joining the Jesuits, which he did upon graduating from high school in Greenbelt, Md.

Ancient Graffiti

On the subject of Greek literature, Mrs. O’Neill recalled her husband’s unique approach to the ancient art of graffiti. In the late 1970s when the corner of Spring and Witherspoon was boarded up after the fire that destroyed the old Colonial diner, he inscribed the fence around the site with some graffiti in ancient Greek. “A Greek who lived in a nearby apartment noticed the message but couldn’t figure it out,” Mrs. O’Neill remembered. “One day when he saw Joe admiring his handiwork, he asked him for a translation. He could see the writing was Greek but couldn’t ‘get’ it in its ancient form.” Taken from actual graffiti reputed to have been discovered on the way to Persia, the message, loosely translated, said: “Let all who pass this way remember the Greeks who fell here.”

Anne and Joseph

Mr. O’Neill also collected books on Abelard. “He found him interesting,” his wife remarked, “because he was one of the first to break from Medieval thought to the Renaissance. And of course he was a scholar and a priest, as Joe was at the time.” (Mr. O’Neill was the first Jesuit ever to enter the Princeton Theological Seminary.) While observing that her husband’s interest in Abelard was as much for his philosophy as for his forbidden love of a young female student named Heloise, Mrs. O’Neill confessed that the love letters between Abelard and Heloise were among the volumes she’s keeping for herself. She also pointed out that she had been a young female student and Mr. O’Neill a priest when the two first met in Salzburg in 1967. Although Anne went her own way for a time (serving in the Peace Corps), Joseph’s days in the priesthood were all but over. They were married in 1970.

From Chaucer to Ricardo

“Another of the things Joe was hoping to find time for,” his wife observed, pointing out a shelf of books related to the author of The Canterbury Tales, “was writing a fictional autobiography of Chaucer.”

As we passed a section on Latin American slavery and Spanish thought on the colonial experience and a strong selection of books on economic philosophy, my tour guide spoke of a depth of scholarly involvement that very nearly led Mr. O’Neill to a dissertation on the first and a doctorate in the latter. She then pointed out three shelves on economic theory, lots of Keynes, an economic history of the British empire, a five-volume set entitled the New Palgrave, “a testimony to the capacity of economics to illustrate the world,” and a complete edition of the writings of David Ricardo, still shrinkwrapped.

Mr. O’Neill became known in the field of management in higher education because of his effective application of economic theories to the management of colleges. Thus his collection includes histories of Oxford and Cambridge, European University history in general, and reform of the English don system, not to mention three shelves of legal history, and a collection of Blackstone.

Church History and China

There is a great deal of church history, too. Despite leaving the Jesuits, “he valued the education they provided for him,” Mrs. O’Neill said. “That and the fact that they were often so successful in integrating themselves and their influence into political cultures around the world. He took special satisfaction whenever he saw the archetypal Romanesque architecture of a Jesuit church in foreign towns.

“We found one on the highest peak, in our favorite Mexican town, Guanajuato. It had long since been handed over to another religious order and then the state university. And the year after Joe died, I was visiting China for the first time when I spotted one near the pedestrian shopping mall in the heart of Beijing. I imagined sprinkling his ashes there.”

Moving to Portland

One reason for the library’s good fortune is Princeton’s loss, since Mrs. O’Neill’s “downsizing” comes in advance of a move to the Pacific Northwest where both her children have settled. “My new downtown Portland condo has a walking score of 95 according to And I’ll be only six blocks from the original and now restored Carnegie library where the librarian is a friend of Joe’s brother, James, who is a librarian in the Washington D.C. system.”

The emotional impact of leaving Princeton is something Anne O’Neill is obviously feeling for the both of them. “Joe loved so much about Princeton,” she said. “He loved his first break on the Planning Board, back in the mid-1980s, when he’d come home excited to be in a position of power after years of teaching and hoping to get through to students, of hearing confessions and providing counseling and absolution while wondering if people would change, and after applying for grants and hoping they would effect real change. On the planning board, the results of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote held the weight of law.”

Elected mayor in 2001 after serving for two years on Borough Council, he took special satisfaction in his role as “the face of the town,” Mrs. O’Neill said, mentioning how much he enjoyed creating a festive celebration to thank the hundreds of community volunteers and how much it meant to him to represent the Borough at the weddings and funerals of staff and their families: “He was also especially good at listening to those who disagreed with the direction of the majority, and even people who disagreed with him felt comfortable enough to leave me with warm messages and memories.”

Mrs. O’Neill’s tour covered only a sample of the subjects that will be featured on Mayor O’Neill’s tables at the fall book sale. Just as the community left “warm messages and memories,” the mayor and his family will be leaving a legacy between covers in the Princeton Public Library’s Community Room this October.

Mrs. O’Neill will return next month to celebrate another of the mayor’s legacies, the lighting of the Princeton Battle Monument, which will take place September 15.


Anne O’Neill will be in Chicago on August 13 for the annual meeting of the American Society of Association Executives, where she will be recognized for having earned the Certified Association Executive credential, the highest professional credential in the association industry.

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