Beverly O’Neill turning 90: ‘She led with love’

Beverly O’Neill, who turns 90 on Sept. 8, remains secure in her role as the most beloved mayor in the history of Long Beach.

Born in Long Beach, she launched her career in education as a child in a pre-kindergarten room at the historic Long Beach Day Nursery. She continued getting her money’s worth out of Long Beach’s educational system, winding her way through the city’s schools, from Lee and Burbank elementary to Hamilton Junior High through her high school years at Poly before receiving her bachelor’s degree at Cal State Long Beach before finally venturing out of town long enough to get her doctorate from USC.

Then it was back to college for a brisk 31-year stint at Long Beach City College, where O’Neill  taught music before jumping into administration and rising through the ranks as Campus Dean, Dean of Student Affairs, Vice President of Student Services and spending her last six years as the college’s Superintendent-President.

And then she retired, along with her husband Bill, her high-school sweetheart at Poly who didn’t move around much either, spending 32 years teaching at USC.

That’s how a lot of life’s stories go, and how many of them end. But not O’Neill’s. Her story was just getting to the good part.

After a bit of time puttering around the house alphabetizing her spice cabinet and keeping her education chops sharp by consulting for community colleges in the state,  she said she was approached by a group of city leaders about four months before the 1994 election. They urged her to run for mayor of Long Beach. O’Neill had never considered politics, plus she was retired. She said “You’ve gotta be kidding.” Nobody laughed. She said, “OK, then.”

It was a crowded field that year, with 13 candidates running for mayor, including council members Ray Grabinski, Jeff Kellogg and Frank Colonna, as well as Ernie Kell and the madcap millionaire about town “Ski” Demski. The council members fared well in the election, but O’Neill was the winner, and so began the post-retirement life of the woman who still lives in the house of her dreams in the city she’s always loved.

She and Bill, who died in 2012, lived most of their married life on the Peninsula. “We’d go for walks on the boardwalk and we’d always pass this one house,” she said. “And I told Bill I wanted to live there someday,” she recalled last week.

“After about 20 years, it finally came on the market and I went to go look at it. Bill wouldn’t go because he said we couldn’t afford it, and he was right.” Instead, her friends bought the house and lived in it for another 20 years, and when they died, the O’Neills bought the home on the boardwalk.

On the eve of her birthday now, she reflects, as she often does, on her life as mayor. “I  never wanted to be a politician, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it,” she said. “I can’t think of one person I didn’t enjoy working with.”

And there were many in her dozen years as mayor — the last term, she won in an unprecedented third-term write-in victory over 2nd District Councilman Dan Baker, who had the distinct advantage of not only being the only name on the ballot, but was also listed on the form as the city’s vice mayor.

O’Neill took office at a particularly troubling time for Long Beach. The boom years that followed the end of World War II were turning dire and the city was crumbling and collapsing into the massive holes left by the departure of the Navy and McDonnell Douglas, the city’s two biggest employers, resulting in thousands of lost jobs.

In reinventing the city, O’Neill’s administration came up with what’s now somewhat famously called the “Three Ts: Trade, Tourism and Technology,” with a rogue R tacked on for Retail.

“The local economy was on its back when she became mayor,” said Jim Hankla, who was city manager at the time and would serve alongside O’Neill for another five years. “We’d lost aerospace and the Navy and we took up TTT and R, those were our strategic goals. It was a hard road to slog and she slogged it every inch of the way. She was an absolute dream to work with,” Hankla said. “She was a city manager’s fondest hope. She never took a political position that was at odds with Long Beach’s goals and objectives.”

O’Neill, in implementing the 3 Ts and an R, helped with Pine Avenue redevelopment, enticed developers to build up Downtown Long Beach, tempered the loss of the Navy Hospital with its replacement, the Long Beach Towne Center, saw the expansion of the convention center and brought the Aquarium of the Pacific and the Pike at Rainbow Harbor to the city’s coastline.

During her tenure, O’Neill developed a friendship with President Bill Clinton, and made several trips to Washington DC on behalf of her city.

“She got into the White House quickly because of her friendship with Leon Panetta, Clinton’s chief of staff,” said Jerry Miller, who was city manager during O’Neill’s last three years as mayor.

“I had known her before I became city manager,” said Miller, who had spent nine years as manager of the city’s Economic Development Bureau before moving to the city manager’s office as deputy city manager in 1998 before becoming the assistant city manager the following year.

He recalled traveling with the mayor on frequent trips to Washington in attempts to forestall the closure of the Navy’s housing base, shipyard and hospital in Long Beach. “We did a lot of traveling together and she was a terrific leader. She worked with the White House, the Navy, all the people up and down the chain. She was even invited socially to the White House, and I was often with her.”

“Beverly was an outstanding mayor, and she was respected nationally as an outstanding mayor,” said Miller. “That was evident when she was elected as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in 2005. She was America’s Mayor for a while.”

And she remains, in many ways, Long Beach’s Mayor. Love and admiration for Beverly continues to resound, and it would be a long, fruitless quest to find someone cranky enough to be a serious detractor.

“I love Beverly,” said the recently retired Randy Gordon, who became president of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce the same year O’Neill was first elected as mayor.

“She’s a Democrat, but I always thought of her as being business friendly. She brought a lot to Long Beach. She’s probably the most popular elected person in our city’s history. No one comes close. I can’t even think of who’d be second-place. George Deukmejian was popular, but Beverly was all about Long Beach.”

Jeff Kellogg, who served on the city council for 12 years—six with Ernie Kell and six with O’Neill—rhetorically asked “Who doesn’t love Beverly? She’s just one of those rare, genuinely nice human beings. Serving with her was an honor. It was so nice to work with someone who truly cared about people and Long Beach.”

And don’t look for any bad-mouthing from her daughter, Teresa O’Neill, who recently moved back to Belmont Shore from Los Angeles with her son Nolan and husband Terrence McNally.

“I had just had my son when she ran for office in 1994,” said Teresa. “So it was a very busy time for all of us.”

She said she was surprised when her mother told her she was running for mayor. “It’s kind of a strange thing to do when you’ve retired. So it was surprising, but also sort of refreshing. I always thought it was amazing that she was doing these things for reasons you’d hope people would have for running for office.”

While Beverly was running the city, Teresa said “It’s almost like the city was my other sibling. She always knew what she needed to do—teaching, her work at LBCC, being mayor, it was just another piece of Long Beach to take care of. She seemed so indebted to Long Beach her entire life, and I think that to take on being mayor, you have to lead with love. She led with love.”

In the time of COVID, it’s difficult to plan and execute a 90th birthday party, and O’Neill isn’t expecting much.

“I’m planning nothing,” she said. “When I turned 85, we had a wonderful gathering on a dinner cruise, but it’s difficult to do something like that now.”

How about a nice surprise party?

“A surprise? I might keel over,” she said. “I told my daughter I don’t need anything. I’ve been busy getting rid of stuff, I don’t want any more things.

“I don’t mind turning 90. I never dreamed I’d live this long,” she said. “Now I’m kind of excited about it. I look forward to it.”

Standing in front of a wall covered with bright magenta bougainvillea and looking out at the Pacific, O’Neill said, “I love the direction of Long Beach now. I’m proud of having been its mayor. Anybody who thinks this isn’t the best place… It’s got the best weather, the best breezes. It’s just a wonderful city.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.