The low odds of two friends in the same tight-knit community on Capitol Hill dying on consecutive days were mercilessly defied last week, as a sad 24 hours rocked the tech and telecom lobbying world — along with numerous other universes both inside politics and out.
News traveled fast on Dec. 8 that Jerry Hogan, 64, an assistant vice president of federal relations at AT&T, had died after a years-long battle with cancer. Given their close relationship, friends and colleagues of Bill O’Neill, 52, a principal at Ogilvy Government Relations, weren’t terribly surprised that day when he didn’t respond to their phone calls, emails and text messages, and never showed up to work. A day later came the gut punch to fellow lobbyists, members of Congress, journalists and beyond when O’Neill’s body was found in his Southeast Washington home near Nationals Park. It was an abode O’Neill dubbed the Billpen and that hosted numerous events before ball games and concerts. Friends said his big heart, in the literal sense, is what killed him.
The result on Capitol Hill was an immeasurable swath of people shocked, confused and grieving about a turn of events impossible to prepare for. Memorial services for both have already been held, and O’Neill’s friends will gather once again Friday at the Tune Inn, where his annual end-of-session gathering will be carried out in his honor.
“He is the throwback to another era, an era in this town we could use,” said Jeff Carroll, chief of staff to Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J. and a close friend of O’Neill. “We really could use more Bill O’Neills. Losing him is devastating for the business that is government, lobbying and politics.”
Just two months earlier, O’Neill, a sports fanatic, had joined Hogan in South Bend, Ind., to watch Hogan’s alma mater Notre Dame take on Stanford in football. Hogan’s son, Kevin, who starred at Gonzaga College High School near Capitol Hill, has been the starting quarterback for the Stanford Cardinal for the last three seasons .
Both men came from big families, were known for their smiles and had a rare touch with all kinds of people, friends of both said. Hogan, a Binghamton, N.Y., native with five brothers and four sisters, is survived by his wife of 32 years, Donna, and their three children, Brian, Kevin and Kelly — plus a community of friends from Notre Dame, Stanford and St. John the Beloved Roman Catholic Church in McLean, Va.
“He always had a smile on his face and was a man of great faith,” said Wendy Donoho, a colleague at AT&T and friend of nearly two decades. “He took every opportunity to get to know someone — from the person that took his order at a restaurant to the member of Congress that he was lobbying, it didn’t matter, he was genuinely interested in the individual. I know he felt his life was richer for the people that he got to know.”
Michael Balmoris, another colleague, added: “Jerry was simply the best. We will remember him fondly and miss his sparkling Irish eyes. It was our good fortune to have known him.”
Yet another, Lyndon Boozer, said Hogan was “authentically terrific, grounded, selfless, generous of heart and spirit, and funny, too.”
That reputation extended across the country. The Stanford beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote a first-person recollection of Hogan for the newspaper. He wrote that Hogan “always was interested in finding out what other people thought rather than in illuminating them with his own world view,” adding later that Hogan “was so easy to talk to, he probably would have made a great priest. He was everybody's friend.”
The same could be and was said about O’Neill numerous times in the days following his death. Cliff Riccio, of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, was a close friend and said O'Neill took meticulous notes about his workouts and health. His final notes came on Dec. 7, a day before Hogan died.
O’Neill, who grew up in Green Pond, N.J. and is survived by his five siblings, was described by every single person interviewed as the link to a time of bipartisan collegiality.
He first came to Capitol Hill to work for his hometown congressman, Democrat Robert Roe, who died earlier this year in Green Pond. He’d go on to serve as a senior policy adviser on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee under Republicans Dan Burton of Indiana and Tom Davis of Virginia.
“He had public service in his veins and was the epitome of integrity — all the kinds of things you look for in someone who works on the Hill and off,” Davis said.
O’Neill’s time off the Hill included stints at Sprint and Earthlink before joining Ogilvy. But his interests extended well beyond.
Riccio said O’Neill had thousands and thousands of books and probably read more than 200 a year. The subjects ranged from politics to Howard Stern to historical biographies to rock-and-roll and to sports.
“I don’t think there’s anyone on the planet who read more, and that’s not an exaggeration,” Riccio said.
Along with a rigid workout regime and reading four entire newspapers a day, the former Marine was a diehard fan of Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead, not to mention his beloved New York (football) Giants and Yankees and, more recently, the Washington Nationals.
“Bill was the most old-school person I knew. He'd keep score at every baseball game he went to and always sent hand-written thank you notes after going to a game or a concert,” said Doug Heye, a veteran Republican spokesman. “When Bruce Springsteen played Nationals Park, a lot of people met at Bill's before the concert. He taped a note on his front door quoting 'Thunder Road' — ‘The door's open, but the ride ain't free.’ That was Bill.”
It’s that reverence for O’Neill that will bring his numerous friends together yet again Friday for the gentleman who, in a town sprouting with high-end restaurants, just wanted a Bud and a burger.
“Bill was always the guy at the center of the booth in a proper Yankees/Giants/Nats jersey giving out gifts to everyone — he loved this party — he loved all of us,” Jesse McCollum, director of government and public affairs at Nike, wrote in a mass email to fellow friends of O’Neill.
“He loved sharing his books, jerseys, rare finds and other treasures at Christmas time — and to be honest he loved that everyone came to the Tune every year. ... In that spirit we all agreed that the party will be held — Bill would have wanted it that way!”
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