'An awesome gift': Steve O'Neil remembered for compassion, social advocacy

More than 500 people turned out Sunday afternoon to pay their respects and honor the life of Steve O'Neil, the late St. Louis County commissioner and community organizer.

Steve O'Neil
(File / News Tribune)

More than 500 people turned out Sunday afternoon to pay their respects and honor the life of Steve O'Neil, the late St. Louis County commissioner and community organizer.

The crowd nearly filled the lower level of the auditorium at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.

"We give you thanks this day for the precious gift of Steve, a loving husband, father, son, brother, friend and hero to us all. His 63 years of earthly life -- all too short in our eyes -- have been an awesome gift to us," said Sister Lois Eckes, prioress of the St. Scholastica Monastery.

O'Neil died Tuesday following a battle with cancer, surrounded by family members at his Endion neighborhood home.

O'Neil and his wife, Angie Miller, the parents of two children of their own, opened their home to 25 foster children. He was involved in a number of local charities including Loaves & Fishes and CHUM, a nondenominational faith-based group providing social services. He also was active in a number of campaigns, including efforts to end local homelessness, reduce secondhand smoke, redirect Community Development Grant Funds to help people in greatest need and to remove potentially dangerous fuel tanks from Duluth's West End.


O'Neil's sister Janet Moss, a nurse, described her brother's upbringing as the eldest of eight children growing up in Chicago. Many of his siblings went on to roles in public service and as social advocates. Moss characterized her late brother as a role model.

"It turns out that the O'Neils are to social work what the Kennedys were to politics," she quipped.

Moss said her brother's commitment to social justice was largely a result of his upbringing. He came to Duluth in the 1970s to earn a master's degree at UMD and stayed on as an organizer for Minnesota COACT, an advocacy group.

Moss said her brother's marriage to Miller cemented his course.

"We can now see where Steve becoming a social worker and an activist for the homeless was inevitable. While our parents laid the foundation, Steve's marriage to Angie brought it to fruition. Steve never worked in isolation. For the past 32 years, Steve and Angie have dedicated their lives to improving the lives of the great people of Minnesota," she said.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, met O'Neil while working as a fellow organizer for Minnesota COACT in 1991, and counted him a close friend.

"Steve saw the humanity in everyone, especially those people who others simply passed by without noticing. He had that incredible ability to be present in the moment in every conversation," he said.

Hornstein said O'Neil has left a lasting legacy, thanks to the many organizers he trained.


"So many change agents in this state can draw a line directly to Steve O'Neil, whether on the issue of housing the homeless, keeping family farmers on the land, preventing deaths from secondhand smoke or labor issues, the list goes on and on and on," he said.

Hornstein contended O'Neil was so passionate about his work because it reflected his deep convictions.

"Sacred work. That's how Steve saw his organizing. He was at his core a person of faith, steeped in the Catholic traditions of social justice, gleaned from his family and his upbringing. Loaves & Fishes, CHUM, Dorothy Day. ... It's no coincidence that such large part of his work was faith-based. And you know he had faith because after all, Steve was a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan," Hornstein joked.

He described O'Neil and his wife as an inseparable team.

"Angie, you and Steve were true partners," Hornstein said. "I've never seen a couple where so much was shared intuitively and was innately understood. You were both in it together every step of the way."

O'Neil's involvement in politics was a natural progression, Hornstein said.

"When Paul Wellstone died, Steve decided to make the move to run for elected office. He was so close to Paul, and like so many, Paul showed Steve how he could make a difference doing social justice work as a public official. And Steve embraced that initiative with the same passion and gusto he showed for community organizing."

Hornstein said some of the same qualities that made O'Neil an effective organizer also served him well in office as a county commissioner; he was first elected in 2004 and served until his death.


"He continued to be an organizer as an elected official. His political opponents will tell you that he kept his humor, and he did that work, creating that model of civility that so few in public life can uphold. Steve was the essence of civility in politics. He was that progressive public official in the true Wellstone tradition," Hornstein said.

Hornstein called on O'Neil's mourners to carry on his memory.

"I think the way to honor Steve is that when we see injustice in the world, we try just a little harder to do our part to confront it. And when we are with our families and friends and those relations that matter most that we hold those people just a little closer," he said.

Jim Soderberg, former executive director of CHUM, said there's no easy measure of the impact O'Neil made.

"Steve is so big. It's impossible to try to say what he means to this community and the hundreds of you sitting here today and the many hundreds more who are grieving with us, wherever they may be," he said.

Regardless of his achievements, Soderberg said O'Neil was never one to seek credit.

"Being the great organizer that Steve was, these accomplishments were never his accomplishments. They were our accomplishments," he said.

O'Neil displayed unique people skills, said the Rev. Kathryn Nelson of Peace United Church of Christ, who delivered the homily.

"Steve was just plain kind," she said. "He listened, and he had a special ability to meaningfully connect with people from all parts of the socio-economic spectrum, political officials, CEOs, people struggling with addiction and poverty and people of all faiths and political persuasions."

Nelson suggested O'Neil's devotion to others will serve him well in the afterlife, as well.

"We trust in the Christ Steve followed in his life, that crazy Jesus who taught things like: If you want to save your life you have to give it away, and the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and blessed are the poor.... It's that same Christ that Steve has followed into eternity."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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