He would walk down Superior Street, greeting the homeless and hungry by name, and they’d reciprocate. Everyone in Duluth knew Steve O’Neil, especially the destitute souls he championed.
“Steve O’Neil was indeed the Mother Teresa of Duluth,” businessman Bruce Stender said Tuesday of the longtime advocate of Duluth’s homeless and poor. O’Neil succumbed to cancer Monday, a day after turning 63.
O’Neil, who won his third term on the St. Louis County Board last November, was better known for creating Duluth’s Loaves and Fishes community, a combination of community activism and religious faith that became a voice for the homeless.
A Chicago native who earned a master’s degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth in the 1970s, O’Neil and his wife, Angie Miller, made advocacy a part of their daily lives.
They took homeless people into their home. O’Neil worked with the American Lung Association during its campaign to end smoking in Minnesota restaurants and bars. In addition to their two children, O’Neil and Miller helped raise 25 foster children.
“For people who were poor, people who didn’t have a voice, people who lived on the margin, he helped give them hope,” said Sister Lois Eckes, of the Benedictine Sisters of Scholastica Monastery in Duluth. “He made everyone feel respected and important, showing genuine love and concern, always listening with his heart.”
Jim Soderberg, former executive director of CHUM, a nonprofit that stands for Churches United in Ministry, said O’Neil loved talking to people, but was a better listener.
“You’d walk down the street with Steve and it would take you forever to walk a block,” Soderberg remembered. “He was open and courageous. He was respectful, bright and passionate — even when dealing with people who had strong disagreements with him.
“He didn’t preach. He would work on issues in a way that never alienated people. He was serious about his passion, the homeless, and people realized that right away.”
Few who knew him were surprised when he first ran for county commissioner. A friend of Paul Wellstone — he occasionally spoke to Wellstone’s students at Carleton College — O’Neil wanted “to give hope to people who had become disenfranchised,” said Jeff Corey, executive director of the Northland Foundation.“ His fellow commissioner, Pete Stauber, called O’Neil “a true public servant, a true inspiration to many of us.”
He knew how to enjoy life. He played cards with his buddies every Sunday, loved to canoe in the Boundary Waters, and would sing “Mustang Sally” anytime he could find a band to back him, Stender said.
But O’Neil and Miller were also the emergency contacts listed for Corey’s children at their school.
A glimpse of O’Neil’s dedication to public service was captured on video at his last public appearance, a County Board meeting on July 9 in Rice Lake Township. He had been open about his battle with cancer for months. After listening to the praises of other board members, he grabbed the microphone and said, in a whisper:
“It’s been a great honor to serve on this board.”
Duluth Mayor Don Ness called O’Neil’s death “a sad day for our community.” On a Facebook page asked people to “honor him by learning from, and being inspired by, the life he led.”
“He accepted everybody and supported them,” said Ann Busche, director of public health and human services for St. Louis County. “His kindness and compassion and real love for the people less fortunate seemed unparalleled. Everybody was his friend.”
O’Neil won a McKnight Foundation Virginia McKnight Binger Award for Human Services in 2008 and was awarded the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless Bruce Vento Distinguished Service Award in 2005.
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center.