A passion for helping youth at risk drives ‘JP kid’ O’Neill

Greg O’Brien, Special to the Reporter
Mar. 20, 2013

School Committee chair Michael O’Neill has a passion for helping youth at risk.School Committee chair Michael O’Neill has a passion for helping youth at risk.

Michael Delaney O’Neill, a big Irish name for a gangly boy, spent his early years in the shadow of James Michael Curley. To be precise, O’Neill, now chairperson of the Boston School Committee and senior vice president of marketing and distribution for Savings Bank Life Insurance of Massachusetts – the “no-nonsense” guys – grew up in a house just behind the Curley home in Jamaica Plain famed for its shamrock-laden shutters.

Clearly the politics and street sense of Hizzoner have rubbed off on O’Neill. “I’m a JP kid,” he boasts, “and proud of it!”

So was his late father, John Henry O’Neill, Jr., who was born in the Moraine Street house, and who later served as Boston Mayor John F. Collins’s co-campaign manager and executive secretary for eight years. Michael O’Neill’s paternal grandfather, John Henry O’Neill, a Cork farmer who emigrated to Boston, then became the owner of O’Neill’s Meat Market on Mission Hill, built the Jamaica Plain home as testament that a butcher could have game.

His grandson has game, too, in the family manner. Holder of an Irish citizenship, with a degree from Boston College, and an MBA in entrepreneurial studies at Babson, Michael O’Neill is one of the brightest bulbs in Boston banking and insurance circles, and the fiduciary head of the oldest public school system in America, to which position he brings a passion for helping youth at risk.

“I was trained in my Irish heritage to help the underdog,” O’Neill said recently in an interview with the Boston Irish Reporter. “To whom much is given, the Jesuits told us, much is expected.”

His passion for the underprivileged is a model for corporate America. When some of his buddies ask him why he cares so much about inner city dropouts, he has his answer at the ready: “Statistics show that the average high school dropout will earn a million dollars less in a lifetime than a college graduate, will die a decade earlier, will have a much higher divorce rate, far more children born out of wedlock, and will cost taxpayers about a half million dollars in assistance. We need to break the cycle of poverty. It has a ripple affect across society.” Spoken by a true entrepreneur, the words are a wakeup call.

The term “entrepreneur” first appeared in the French dictionary in 1723. As defined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon, it describes an individual who is a champion for needed change no matter the risk. O’Neill is all of that.

“Michael is the perfect choice to lead the school committee,” said Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino upon O’Neill’s election in January as chairperson. “He will serve as an advocate for youth across our city.”
With a school district of 57,000 students, 125 schools, 8,500 employees, and close to a $1billion annual operating budget, O’Neill must turn advocacy into results, as he has done in the past on professional fronts in his work with SBLI, Bank of America, Citizens Bank, and the US Trust Corp, all places where he has turned numbers, the beans of an organization, into motivating and meaningful results.

He has had much help along the way, starting with his defining roots in Jamaica Plain where it gradually became clear that he is a blend of his parents’ resolve for fulfillment in life. His mother Joan (Delaney), a housewife, was a “warm, loving and gracious woman, but always to the point,” a New Yorker by birth who ultimately became a Red Sox fan, yet until the day she died, she spoke in a Big Apple vernacular spouting words like “cawfee.”

She was a wordsmith of sorts. Her father was a successful Manhattan publisher of detective and crime magazines, and upon her husband’s retirement, she informed him, “You may have retired, but I’m not.” And with that, she became highly active in community service, serving as president of the Brigham & Women’s Faulkner Hospital volunteer group.
O’Neill’s late father, with ties to the pastoral village of Rossmore outside Clonakilty, was a devoted husband, “abide-by–the-rules man, and an individual of achievement in his tenure at City Hall and as a longtime member of the board of directors of Depositors Trust Company in Medford.

The immediate O’Neill family hasn’t strayed far from Jamaica Plain. His four siblings live in West Roxbury, and O’Neill now lives in Charlestown. “I might as well be in California as far as they’re concerned,” he jokes.

Educated at JP’s Joseph P. Manning School at the top of Moss Hill, then Boston Latin, O’Neill played competitive neighborhood hockey and baseball, and at the Latin School, he excelled on the swim, tennis, and sailing teams.

Sailing? How does a landlocked kid learn how to sail? On the Irish Rivieria, of course. Generations ago, grandfather O’Neill, the butcher who would be king, built a family summer home in Scituate where his grandson learned to sail in the harbor where today he keeps his sleek Cal 33 sailboat, named Rossmore.

O’Neill and his wife, Rana (Haidar)—a retail banker and Beirut native who as a child moved with her family to Cape Cod due to the civil war in Lebanon —were married at Scituate Harbor Yacht Club in a waterfront ceremony that invoked the sands of heritage.

“My cousins in Rossmore shipped over some beach sand, which was added to sand from the Cape, Jamaica Pond, and Beirut,” says O’Neill, the stepfather of Rana’s three children from a previous marriage. “We mixed the sand as symbolism that we were blended together.”

O’Neill’s career itself is a blend of lots of ingredients, most of them having to do with selling. As an eighth grader at Boston Latin, he was a “soda man” at BC games. “Get ya Coke, heah, get ya Coke, heah!” he mimics. He was so good at it that when he was in college at Boston College, Boston University hired him to manage its concessions stands, although he fell into some disfavor by wearing his BC jacket at BU hockey games. Luckily, he didn’t get the puck beat out of him; he was “finally asked not to wear it.”

After graduation, BC Athletic Director Bill Flynn offered O’Neill the position of running all concessions at school athletic events during the Doug Flutie years, an offer he jumped at, forming a concession company with his dad, called Delano Enterprises (short for Delaney and O’Neill). Not fully satisfied with selling hot dogs and popcorn and watching Hail Mary passes, O’Neill attended night school at Babson for a masters in business administration, which opened a surfeit of opportunities with: US Trust as a commercial lender and a regional president; senior vice president of Citizens Financial Group; president of Citizens CFG Insurance Services; a board member at SBLI; senior vice president and private client advisor for US Trust Bank of America’s Private Wealth Management; and senior vice president of marketing and distribution at SBLI, a position he has held since April 2010 under the mentorship of former CEO Bob Sheridan and now Christopher Pinkerton.

As if O’Neill’s corporate resume isn’t full of accomplishment, that passion for assisting youth at risk keeps driving him forward. Like his mother, he will never retire. His involvement in schools began in his late 20s when he was living in Hyde Park. While walking his dog one day near the Hyde Park High School campus, he came across a sign that read: Academy of Finance. “I called the headmaster, told him I was a young banker living in Hyde Park, and asked how could I help,” O’Neill recalled.

It was the start of years of service to Boston Public Schools that led to his appointment as board chairman of the Boston Private Industry Council’s Youth Council and, in July 2008, a seat on the seven-member Boston School Committee. He’s in his second term on the board.
“The decisions facing this committee will have an important impact on the future of the school district,” outgoing chairperson Rev. Gregory Grover, Sr., said at O’Neill’s election to the post about two months ago. “I have no doubt that Michael will lead the committee well, and consider the many voices in all aspects of the decision-making process.”

Still many challenges lie ahead in improving student test scores, reducing the dropout rate, coordinating a complex student assignment plan, adding, where possible, student enrichment programs, juggling a tight budget amidst rising transportation and health care costs, and increasing the district’s graduation rate, the highest today in 20 years.

“We have to do more with less,” he says, referencing funding constraints on Beacon Hill.

All of which will take the political acumen of a James Michael Curley, the leadership and drive of a Michael Collins, and the patience of Michael the Archangel.