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Long Beach's Steel Magnolia

Politics: Mayor Beverly O'Neill adores her job, and for voters the feeling is mutual. But don't let that grandmotherly charm fool you.

July 16, 2002|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's July 3 at Long Beach City Hall, and a piercing emergency alarm sends jittery staffers scurrying to the stairs.

Anchored in the stairwell is Mayor Beverly O'Neill. Like a regal room mother in a burgundy suit, the 71-year-old O'Neill smiles reassuringly, pats fleeing secretaries, shaken like the rest of the country by warnings of possible Fourth of July terrorism.

"It's probably nothing," she says to one as the alarm keeps wailing. "I wouldn't worry," she tells another.

This is not part of her job as the mayor of California's fifth-largest city, but it is who O'Neill is. Such a gesture only begins to explain her remarkable victory last month as a termed-out mayor returned to office by 16,500 write-in votes.

The stunning upset made her belle of the recent national mayors' conference and further sealed her image as an accomplished and stately municipal steward--although she's prone to quote Mae West at civic functions.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 20, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 277 words Type of Material: Correction
Long Beach mayor--A profile in Tuesday's California section of Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill incorrectly stated the date of her marriage. It was Dec. 21, 1952. Also, the story did not report the total number of votes she received in June's mayoral election. In a post-election recount that included provisional ballots, O'Neill's final tally was 19,135 votes.

Whatever one feels about her civic progress--and she has her critics--it's hard not to find inspiration in the copper-haired O'Neill and her personal narrative: A devastating childhood with her father, the town drunk who eventually sobered up, and a mother who founded what became the family support group Al-Anon and ran it from the family's living room.

O'Neill married her high school beau, put herself through college by working seven years at J.C. Penney, became a music teacher, founded a women's center for returning older college students and rose to become president of Long Beach City College.

O'Neill's first and only spin in politics has been as mayor of a city she adores. To those who courted her for higher office, she has graciously made it clear that she won't leave her hometown.

"She loves Long Beach," said daughter Theresa O'Neill, 43, a Los Angeles television writer. "First I said she replaced me with a schnauzer. Now I think she replaced me with a city."

Even detractors acknowledge that O'Neill, who takes the oath of office today, has played feel-good ambassador for a city whose morale and finances tanked after the Navy shipped out and the aerospace industry was downsized. The twin blows claimed 50,000 jobs from the local economy even before the early 1990s recession rocked the city harder than most.

Understanding O'Neill requires knowing about her whole life, not just the public years, the four decades in which she rose to lead a college and a city.

Before she was born, her parents moved from South Dakota to Long Beach for a better life. But her childhood, she has said, was branded by the shame of her father's drinking. She dreaded her own wedding for fear of a scene. From under this cloud, she and her mother, Flossie Lewis, eventually emerged into happier times.

O'Neill grew up Baptist, singing in the church choir. She sang the lead in musical productions, including Yum-Yum in "The Mikado," at Polytechnic High School, where a classmate recalled her sunny humor and empathy. Under all that good cheer, friends and family say, was resilience; more than a few refer to her as a steel magnolia.

Being the child of an alcoholic leaves certain imprints, according to Al-Anon literature, which evolved long after O'Neill's mother helped pioneer the concept after putting a 24-hour hotline in her home. One characteristic is overachievement. Another is self-reliance born of uncertainty. Both traits course through O'Neill's life.

Take her college education. She earned not one, but five teaching credentials. She was certified for kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school and to act as a curriculum supervisor and general administrator.

A generation later, when her daughter graduated from USC and announced that she would become a writer, the need for a safety net echoed in O'Neill's first thought: "You'd better get a job waiting tables. Just in case," O'Neill said.

While growing up, her worldview was a small one. She had never been to a Chinese or Mexican restaurant before falling for the fellow high school senior who would become her husband, Bill O'Neill.

"He's brilliant," she said simply. "He finished college in three years and got his master's in one. He had bigger goals than I did. He had visions of a great future, seeing the world. The world I was in, we planned for Saturday night."

Bill joined the Navy, and the couple married Dec. 21, 1942, on his weekend leave from boot camp.

"Beverly spent our 'honeymoon' in a San Diego motel room," Bill O'Neill said, "writing thank-yous." Yes, he grinned, that is so Beverly.

Knowing the spouse behind the mayor reveals much about her. Now slowed by flagging health, Bill O'Neill, a retired USC English professor, is more of a bookworm homebody. He delights in his wife's civic adventures, just as she enjoyed his academic capers.

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