Duluth organizer, politician O'Neil remembered for working with peopleSteve O’Neil, longtime Duluth advocate for the homeless, hungry and poor and county commissioner representing the city’s eastern neighborhoods, died today after battling cancer for several months. O’Neil turned 63 on Monday.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
Steve O’Neil, longtime Duluth advocate for the homeless, hungry and poor and county commissioner representing the city’s eastern neighborhoods, died Tuesday after battling cancer for several months.
O’Neil, who turned 63 on Monday, died with his wife, Angie Miller, his son and daughter and several siblings at his side in his Endion neighborhood home.
Visitation will be Saturday evening in Peace United Church of Christ. His funeral is set for Sunday afternoon at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.
O’Neil was praised Tuesday as someone who worked to bring people together to solve problems, whether finding shelter for Duluth’s homeless or setting the county’s annual budget.
“Steve realized that if you want to create community, to move forward, you don’t demonize people. They are not the enemy because they disagree with you. You work with them,” said Jim Soderberg, former executive director of the CHUM social services agency in Duluth. “He had a real passion for justice and compassion for people. But he was also grounded in his life and his faith. ... He embodied his philosophy with the way he lived his life.”
O’Neil was diagnosed with prostate cancer last fall but decided to hold off seeking treatment, or making his ailment public, until after the November election in which he defeated challenger Becky Hall to win his third term on the St. Louis County Board.
O’Neil had surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in December and appeared to be getting better. Then, this spring, he was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer. Despite efforts to treat the cancer, it spread to his stomach and other areas.
Though weakened by the cancer, chemo and radiation treatments, O’Neil worked to keep up his post as county commissioner. Just last Tuesday he attended the board’s meeting at the Rice Lake Town Hall and received a standing ovation and praise from his fellow county commissioners.
Commissioner Mike Forsman of Ely said he wanted the board’s words to be an inspiration of hope and not a eulogy. But it was clear to many friends and county officials at the meeting that O’Neil was nearing the end.
“You are a man of conviction, courage and dedication,” Commissioner Pete Stauber of Hermantown said to O’Neil.
“He’s a true champion for people who are in need,” added Commissioner Steve Raukar of Hibbing.
O’Neil, barely able to speak because of his radiation treatment, held a microphone close to his mouth and whispered, “It’s been a great honor to serve on this board.”
It was O’Neil’s last public appearance.
In March O’Neil went public with his cancer when he told the News Tribune a lump was diagnosed on his neck even as he was beating prostate cancer.
“My sister is the one who noticed it at the dinner table. She’s a nurse. I hadn’t even seen the lump because, as you know, I don’t shave very often,” the bearded O’Neil joked at the time.
The type of cancer was aggressive, O’Neil said, but he was planning to fight back with just as aggressive treatment.
O’Neil was roasted April 7 at Clyde Iron Works in Duluth when hundreds of people gathered at a potluck event in his honor. True to form, O’Neil refused to accept any financial help in his medical battle and instead insisted the more than $33,000 raised at the event go to Duluth’s CHUM social services agency for which he once worked.
“I can’t speak too much today. It’s very hard for me because of the radiation. But you know it’s tough for an Irish politician and organizer not to talk,” O’Neil said that night. “My late and great friend Paul Wellstone said, ‘We all do better when we all do better.’ Well, we all are doing better today.”
O’Neil grew up in a family of eight kids in Chicago and came to the Northland to get his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the 1970s. He decided to stay in the area and helped form the citizens’ advocacy group Minnesota COACT and, after a stint in Washington, D.C., helped form Duluth’s Loaves and Fishes Community, which combines religious faith and community activism for homeless and hungry people.
It was during his community organizing days that O’Neil met and became friends with Paul Wellstone. O’Neil sometimes spoke in Wellstone’s classroom at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and stayed in the Wellstone home while a regional community organizer in southeastern Minnesota.
The two shared an unabashed tilt toward a liberal brand of politics aimed at helping the underclass.
“His goal was to make life a little better for as many people as he could. And he did,” said former St. Louis County Commissioner Peg Sweeney, who served next to O’Neil for eight years. “He lived his life following his convictions. He was a role model to so many.”
Sweeney said O’Neil “is probably one of the kindest, most compassionate, wonderful men I’ve ever met in my life.”
O’Neil also worked with CHUM as part of his ongoing effort to create homes for the homeless, also one of his top priorities on the County Board. He worked with the American Lung Association during its campaign to end smoking in Minnesota bars and restaurants.
He and his wife have raised two children and helped raise 25 foster children. Miller has taken time away from her position as executive director of Community Action Duluth to be with her husband.
In 2005, O’Neil was awarded the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless Bruce Vento Distinguished Service Award. The honor, named after former Congressman Bruce Vento of St. Paul, recognized O’Neil’s decades of work to end homelessness and social injustice.
In 20008, O’Neil won a McKnight Foundation Virginia McKnight Binger Award for Human Services that honors Minnesotans who “enable people to help themselves and others.”
O’Neil topped incumbent County Commissioner Joanne Faye in 2004 to take the seat that represents the eastern third of Duluth. He was unopposed in 2008 and won again in November to secure a third term.
Visitation will be 6-10 p.m. Saturday in Peace United Church of Christ, 1111 N. 11th Ave. E., Duluth. Services will be 1 p.m. Sunday in Symphony Hall (the auditorium) at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Memorials are preferred and may be directed to CHUM, 102 W. Second St., Duluth, MN 55802. Dougherty Funeral Homes is handling arrangements.