Longtime civic leader and former Newport Beach Mayor Dennis “Denny” O’Neil passed away on Jan. 6 in Corona del Mar after a long battle with fibrosis of the lungs. He was 78.
O’Neil was the vice chairman of Newport Beach and Company, the private nonprofit marketing arm for the city, and was considered one of the city’s most influential political voices advising both elected and business leaders on a range of issues.
O’Neil was elected to two terms on the Newport Beach City Council from 1994 to 2002, and was appointed mayor in 1999. He was named by the Newport Chamber of Commerce as the Newport Beach Citizen of the Year for 2006 and was appointed by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to the Orange County Public Law Library Board of Trustees for a term from 2003 to 2008.
O’Neil also served as counsel for the Board of Directors of Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian for over 25 years.
As a child in Oakland, he battled polio that left him with a limited use in his left arm. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Southern California, he found himself facing a memorable maritime challenge while crewing a vessel to Tahiti. Adrift at sea for 30 days without wind, he later told friends and family that he took that opportunity to think about what he wanted to do in life.
That introspection led him to law school in San Francisco, where he received his juris doctor degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. After graduation, he became the assistant city attorney and then city attorney for Newport Beach before entering private practice.
O’Neil specialized in the field of municipal land use law, representing clients before counties, cities, special districts and public agencies in Southern California in negotiating, documenting and obtaining project permitting and entitlement approvals.
“Denny was Mayor when I was hired as city manager in 1999. Beyond his role as an elected leader, Denny was always a voice of reason, insight and could cut through an issue to a logical conclusion,” remembered Homer Bludau, former city manager of Newport Beach. “More than that, he was one of my very close friends who was always supportive of me and always had the community’s best interests at heart.”
“I cannot express how difficult it is to lose Denny,” said Gary Sherwin, president and CEO of Newport Beach and Company. “His contributions to our organization as an Executive Committee member have been hugely significant including his pro bono legal work on our behalf. He was always a wise and thoughtful voice during and between our meetings as well as a dear and loyal friend. He was completely devoted to our cause and mission. This loss is devastating.”
“Denny brought a wonderful institutional knowledge of Newport Beach to our board meetings which was so helpful in guiding this organization forward” said Debbie Snavely, chairwoman of Newport Beach and Company. “His wit, intellect and dedication to the best interests of the city will be very sadly missed. He has left a hole in the community that will not be filled anytime soon.”
In recognition of his contributions, Newport Beach and Company is naming its prestigious Partner in Progress Award, which recognizes community leadership, in O’Neil’s honor.
“In addition to being my good friend and mentor, Dennis was a member of the Chamber’s Commodores Club,” noted Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Steve Rosansky.
“It is a very sad day for us and for the city of Newport Beach,” said Sherwin. “This community has lost one of its greatest leaders.”
He is survived by his wife Thais, and his daughter Molly Proul, granddaughter Lucille Proul and sister Nancy O’Neil.
Services will be Jan, 12 at Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Newport Beach at 11 a.m. with a reception to follow. Graveside services will be private.