Please remember in your prayers Dan O’Neill ’56, who remained intimately involved with St. Thomas as an Alumni Board member, event volunteer and sports fan for 60 years.
O’Neill, 83, died Monday. In reflecting on his life this week, family members and friends kept saying one thing over and over. He loved St. Thomas.
“A couple of people told me, ‘Dan bled purple,’ and you know, he really did!” said his wife, Kay. “He had a love affair with St. Thomas. He got to know so many people there. It gave him a good feeling every time he stepped on campus.”
“Dan was always promoting St. Thomas,” said Bob Schmall ’54, who frequently attended football and basketball games with O’Neill and Tom Kelly ’58. “He was a ‘100 percenter’ in everything he did for St. Thomas, and with his family, friends and on the job.”
“He was the most ‘people person’ I have known,” Kelly said, “and that especially showed when he was on campus. He genuinely was a great fan of St. Thomas.”
O’Neill, a career probation officer, was born in 1932 in Rhinelander, Wis., and attended St. Norbert’s College near Green Bay for two years. He transferred to St. Thomas, where he majored in social work and, by his own admission, struggled in school.
“I was not a good student,” O’Neill told a St. Thomas Day audience in 1997, when he received the Monsignor James Lavin Award for volunteer service to the Alumni Association. “I was a lousy student most of the time that I was here.”
In fact, he said, he was summoned in the summer of 1955 by Father William O’Donnell, dean of the college, for a meeting about his academic performance. O’Donnell had known O’Neill’s uncle, Father Joseph O’Neill, a dean at St. Thomas after World War I.
“Father O’Donnell looked at me,” O’Neill recalled, “and said, ‘If your uncle could see your record here, he would spin in his grave.’ Well, if Father O’Donnell could see me up here getting this award, he’d spin in his grave!
“Father O’Donnell laid down all kinds of rules and regulations for my continuing at St. Thomas. I had to be on probation, live alone, not work and so forth, and he got my attention. At the end of the next semester, I was on the honor roll.”
O’Neill suggested that the experience resulted in his decision to become a probation officer. “It was something I knew a lot about,” he said.
The Water Tower Incident
In his St. Thomas Day remarks, O’Neill also sought to clarify his involvement in what he called “the famous water tower incident” in May 1955 at the College of St. Catherine on Ascension Thursday – a day when Tommies traditionally wandered over to St. Kate’s “to pull shenanigans.”
The O’Neill contingent of six Tommies decided to crash the St. Kate’s senior variety show. They donned dresses and found a “confederate” to sneak them through an auditorium window, but they had what he called a “mixup” and ended up on a dark stage. “Our chorus line didn’t come off and we beat a hasty retreat,” he said.
Other Tommies had more success that evening at St. Kate’s. The next day, early risers found a bathtub in the campus pond, with the words “Kon Tiki” painted on the side; a pair of long red underwear, featuring the name of a burlesque theater, atop a flagpole; and a Hamm’s Beer sign painted on top of the water tower, with the words, “Between classes, it’s Hamm’s.”
“The nuns were not pleased,” O’Neill said, and the “culprits,” including him, found themselves before Father Robert Vashro, dean of students at St. Thomas. He wanted the names of everybody involved in the incidents. “There were about 22 people involved,” O’Neill said, “including the president of the senior class, the editor of the Aquin, the president of the All College Council, and so forth.” Vashro couldn’t suspend or expel all of them, so their punishment was to meet with St. Catherine administrators. “One of them,” O’Neill said, told them, ‘You boys are barred from this campus for life!’ ”
O’Neill insisted he did not paint the water tower. But he noted that when his daughter Shannon graduated from St. Catherine in 1993, “I drove boldly right onto that campus, parked the car, sat through the graduation and reception feeling very smug, and drove off triumphantly at the end.”
Life as a probation officer
After graduation, O’Neill worked as a probation officer in St. Paul for several years before taking a job in 1962 as a juvenile probation officer in Hennepin County. He stayed 32 years, including the last several years as an adult probation officer, and retired in 1994. He was “a natural” in his job, said Ron Poeschel, a colleague who spent 42 years as a juvenile probation officer.
“Dan was a very social, caring person,” said Poeschel, an Augsburg graduate who came to many St. Thomas games with O’Neill after their retirements. “He liked people. He knew how to communicate, and his personality put people at ease and made them feel comfortable.”
Kay O’Neill said her husband had a remarkable impact on juvenile offenders, many of whom “would come back, long after they were involved in their careers, to visit him and to thank him.”
Ted Rogers was one of those offenders. Now a Chaska insurance agency owner, he got in trouble in 1963 and was assigned to O’Neill for four years until joining the Marine Corps.
“He was the best friend a wayward teenager could have,” Rogers said. “He always pled my case as my advocate. He never gave up on me, not one time. He literally saved my life, and I never have been able to thank him enough. Several years ago I had dinner with Dan to express my appreciation, and his humility prevented him from really understanding the significance of his impact on my life.”
O’Neill earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Nebraska in 1968. He was active in the Emerald Society, an organization of police officers and firefighters of Irish descent, and as a clown with the Aqua Jesters for three decades he visited schools, children’s hospitals and nursing homes and marched in parades.
Always a Tommie
As busy as he was with his job, family and other activities, O’Neill always had time for St. Thomas.
He joined the Alumni Association Board of Directors in 1987 . . . and never really left. Directors could serve two three-year terms, but when O’Neill’s time was up, he still came to meetings and remained active on committees along with fellow former board members Jerry Alfveby ’56 and Don Peterson ’82 M.A. They eventually received “emeritus” status.
O’Neill especially became a fixture on campus after retirement, to the point some people wondered if he worked at St. Thomas. He showed up for everything – meetings, concerts and lectures or just to hang out in the old Grill – and he loved football and basketball games.
“We’re pretty good this year,” he often said, and he was particularly thrilled when the men’s team coached by Steve Fritz ’71 won the NCAA Division III title in 2011.
“He was as dedicated to St. Thomas as anybody I know,” Schmall said of O’Neill. “He always had good spirit. He didn’t talk a lot about why he did so much at St. Thomas. He just did it.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include his daughters Shannon and Sheila O’Neill.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be at 11 a.m. Friday, Jan. 15, at the Church of St. Bartholomew, 630 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata. Visitation will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 14, at Gearty-Delmore Funeral Chapel, 15800 37th Ave N., Plymouth, and at the church one hour before Friday’s service. Memorials are preferred to the University of St. Thomas.