November 24: William O’Neill, Connecticut’s Longest-Serving Governor

 

 

In many respects, Governor William A. O’Neill lived the life of a quintessential 20th century Connectican.  Born in Hartford in 1930, he attended public schools in hEast Hampton, took classes at the Connecticut Teacher’s College (now Central Connecticut State University), and subsequently held jobs in two of Connecticut’s major industries: first at Pratt & Whitney, then at Prudential as an insurance salesman.  After serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, O’Neill returned to his hometown to help manage the family business: O’Neill’s Taproom, a neighborhood tavern.

O’Neill later claimed that his time spent at the family tavern turned him into an empathetic listener, and was a foundational experience for his later political career.  “You had all walks of life [there],” he said in an interview, “You had ditch diggers and you had doctors, you had them all right across the spectrum.  Meeting all walks of life, it broadened your horizons.”  Plenty of politicians frequented O’Neill’s Taproom, too, and after sitting in at a number of local Democrat party meetings, O’Neill threw his own hat in the ring, running and eventually being elected as a state representative for six terms.

Governor “Bill” O’Neill, known for being cordial and personable, shakes the hand of President Ronald Reagan during the 1983 Governor’s Association Meeting in Washington, DC. (Connecticut State Archives)

In the 1970s, O’Neill was the campaign manager for Ella Grasso, who became the first woman in the United States to be elected Governor without being preceded by her husband.  A popular Democratic governor, Grasso selected O’Neill to join her ticket as Lieutenant Governor during her successful 1978 re-election campaign; two years later, when Grasso was forced to resign due to declining health, O’Neill suddenly found himself in the Governor’s seat.  O’Neill, as a moderate Democrat, governed cautiously for his first two years as the state’s chief executive, but once he was re-elected in his own right in 1982, he vigorously pursued an agenda of economic growth, infrastructure repair, and stronger state-wide education.  Having inherited a deficit upon first taking office, within five years the state was enjoying a budget surplus and healthy economic (and population) growth.

O’Neill was re-elected for two four-year terms, serving for a total of ten years in office — making him the longest-serving governor in modern Connecticut history.  In 1991, he retired to the shores of Lake Pocotopaug in East Hampton with his wife. On November 24, 2007, “Bill” O’Neill passed away from complications from emphysema.  Both Democrats and Republicans published fond remembrances of the popular and well-respected politician, describing him as a “good a decent man” and someone who “never goes back on his word and who values loyalty and commitment.”  One of Connecticut’s most iconic governors remembered, on this day in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

William Atchison O’Neill,” Museum of Connecticut History

William O’Neill, Connecticut Governor,New York Times

William A. O’Neill Records Inventory, Connecticut State Archives