Joseph T. “Joe” O’Neill, a prominent St. Paul attorney, former Republican state legislator, law professor, and community leader, died Tuesday of natural causes in hospice care at Lilydale Senior Center. He was 90 years old.
His surviving family members also described O’Neill as “an advocate of education, a man of strong Christian faith, a devoted and fun-loving family man, and a longtime resident of St. Paul.”
He practiced law in St. Paul for over 50 years and was co-founder and partner of the law firm O’Neill, Grills & O’Neill.
First elected to the Minnesota House in 1966 from a district in the city’s southwest corner, O’Neill served in that house for two terms before running for the Senate in 1970. He also served two terms in that body before retiring in 1976. His fellow Republicans elected him Minority Leader in his final term.
“Joe was a gifted speaker,” said former DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe. “He had flair and, as a lawyer, he was an effective debater and delivered clear messages. He was thorough, paid attention to detail, and could be tough when needed. »
Moe particularly admired O’Neill’s commitment to serving the entire state of Minnesota and not just his district of St. Paul. “He figured out he was a state senator.”
During Moe’s first term in 1971, O’Neill invited him to a meeting with constituents in St. Paul. He told the group that he represented part of a city, a county and a school district, then asked Moe to describe his district in northwest Minnesota which included three counties and 28 cities. Moe said O’Neill wanted to broaden his constituents’ understanding of the rest of Minnesota.
O’Neill was Ken Kirkpatrick’s first customer when he opened his Capital Barbers and Stylists store in the basement of the State Office Building in 1972, and “we’ve been friends ever since,” Kirkpatrick said Wednesday. During their first haircut, he said he mentioned that his adopted son Josh from Vietnam needed surgery, but Kirkpatrick’s insurance company refused to cover it.
Shortly after O’Neill left the store, he phoned the barber and said, “Go ahead (the operation). They will cover it.
“Joe was a really good guy,” Kirkpatrick said.
O’Neill attended St. Luke’s Catholic Grade School and graduated from St. Thomas Academy in 1949. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame in 1953 and a law degree from University College of Law. University of Minnesota in 1956. He served as a legal adviser in the United States Air Force during active duty from 1956 to 1959 and in the reserves until 1972.
As a community leader, O’Neill served as chairman of the St. Paul Civic Center Authority which secured funding for the Xcel Energy Center and National Hockey League expansion with the Minnesota Wild in 2000. He has also named Outstanding Jaycees Chapter President; received outstanding alumni awards from St. Thomas Academy, Notre Dame, and U Law School, where he also taught law courses from 2004-2013; served as a counselor at St. Joseph’s Hospital, helped create a legal aid program, and served on the 1991 Final Four and Super Bowl committees. Additionally, he proudly served as “Mr. Pat” of Patrick’s Day in 1979.
His motto was: “Community service is the rent you pay as a citizen.
“Although these awards were significant,” wrote his survivors, “his dearest recognition was being a father and ‘Bumpa.’ Joe loved spending time at a family cabin at White Bear Lake and Round Lake, Wisconsin, family vacations to Marco Island, Florida, and Ireland, as well as golfing with five sons…and scoring his famous hole-in-one! Dad loved connecting with his large extended family, his wide circle of friends and community members.
O’Neill was predeceased by his wife of 50 years, Nancy; son, Tom (Laurie); three sisters, Dolly, Laura and Joanie; one brother, Jim; and his son-in-law Joe Rogers. He is survived by his brother and legal partner, Pat; and children, Kathleen, Joe (Felicia), Maureen Rogers, John (Molly), Michael (Beth), Kevin (Catherine) and Shelagh (Mark) Sheeser; 25 grandchildren; and 21 great-grandchildren.
A Christian burial mass will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday, January 29, with visitation from 8:30 a.m. to 9:45 a.m. at the Church of the Assumption, 51 W. Seventh St., St. Paul. A private family burial will take place at the Resurrection Cemetery.