John H. O'Neill, 82, first head of Harford County Council

July 08, 2002|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

John H. O'Neill, a gregarious auctioneer and farmer who served as the first president of the Harford County Council, died of cancer Wednesday at his Forest Hill home. He was 82.

The lifelong Harford resident, whose family has lived there since before the Revolutionary War, spent a dozen years in local government during the 1960s and 1970s - a time when the county was changing from a rural bastion to a fast-growing suburban jurisdiction.

He was the Republican nominee for county executive in 1974, losing by fewer than 3,000 votes to incumbent Democrat Charles B. Anderson.

Born in Bel Air, Mr. O'Neill graduated from Bel Air High School and Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1942 and received an ensign's commission after completing an officers' training program at Columbia University.

After serving in the Pacific, Mr. O'Neill and Lois May Schnepfe of Edgewood married in San Diego in 1945. The couple returned to Harford County in 1946.

Mr. O'Neill then embarked on what would become a remarkably varied career as a farmer, banker, landscaper, bookkeeper, mover, appraiser and real estate agent and, after 1948, an auctioneer.

In 1949, he and his wife bought a farm near Bel Air. Ten years later, they moved to Springwood Farm in Forest Hill, where he would live the rest of his life. At the peak of his farming career, he cultivated more than 1,500 acres in the county.

His auction practice made him a familiar figure throughout Harford County and surrounding areas. He was a regular at the Mason-Dixon Livestock Market in Stewartstown, Pa., and the Hunter Auction Barn in Cecil County. He helped establish what has become the Bel Air Auto Auction.

His business, O'Neill Enterprises in Forest Hill, is now operated by his daughter Aimee O'Neill and his son Patrick S. O'Neill.

Retired District Judge Harry St. A. O'Neill recalled his brother as a man who would walk into a crowded room and meet and greet everybody.

"He was a people person. He liked people and he liked talking to them. He liked to be involved in new things and new businesses," Judge O'Neill said.

When he entered politics in the 1950s, he was following a family tradition. His father, Howard S. O'Neill, was a state senator, and a grandfather, Thomas H. Robinson, was Maryland attorney general.

After losing two races for delegate, Mr. O'Neill was elected county commissioner in 1962 - one of the few Republican officials in what was then strongly Democratic territory.

In 1972, when Harford County switched to a charter form of government, Mr. O'Neill surprised his fellow Republicans by declining to run for county executive - leaving them without a nominee. Instead, he became council president. After his 1974 defeat for county executive, he retired from elective politics but remained active in community affairs.

Mr. O'Neill played a leading role in the preservation of St. Ignatius Church in Hickory - one of the oldest Catholic churches in Maryland. Condemned as structurally unsound in 1967, the church reopened in 1969 after Mr. O'Neill appealed to Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan and raised funds for its restoration.

A Mass of the Resurrection will be offered at 11 a.m. July 15 at St. Ignatius.

In addition to his wife, son, daughter and brother, Mr. O'Neill is survived by his sons Harry St. A. O'Neill of Forest Hill and John H. O'Neill Jr. of Kensington; and daughters Mary Lou Hoopes and Carolyn Nelson, both of Forest Hill, and Betsy Collie of Glen Arm. He is also survived by brothers James F. O'Neill of Selbyville, Del., and Daniel D. O'Neill of Bel Air; sisters Betty McComas of Bel Air, Peggy Creel of Arlington, Va., and Nancy Rideout of Lebanon, N.H.; 18 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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