Millie O’Neill: A Graceful and Extraordinary Life

Posted October 21, 2003 at 2:26pm

Mildred O’Neill, the wife of the late Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.), died Oct. 6. Roll Call asked her granddaughter, House staffer Catlin O’Neill, to share her thoughts about her grandmother.

Several years ago the mayor of Cambridge, Mass., asked Millie O’Neill to inscribe his copy of “Man of the House,” the memoir of her late husband, Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill. Millie asked the mayor how he had been. He replied, “Well, I recently split with my longtime girlfriend. Ah, Millie, I’m looking for a woman like you!” When he left the building he opened the book and read the inscription: “They don’t make ’em like me anymore. Love, Millie.”

I have learned a lot from Millie O’Neill, most of which is her extraordinary femininity and strength. The two are rarely perceived as going hand in hand, but if you dig beneath the surface they emerge as one. She is a woman to behold, having led an exemplary life. She was simultaneously a woman of her time and a woman ahead of her time.

She was born in 1914 to Evelyn and Harlow Miller in a simple home in Somerville, Mass. Harlow had converted to Catholicism to marry his French Canadian lady, Evelyn Vyette, whom Speaker O’Neill later called “the closest thing to an angel one would ever know.” Millie was followed by two sisters eight years apart.

On the eve of the Great Depression, Harlow could not find work and it was up to Millie to support the family. She went to work at the local spice factory bottling paprika for $25 a week. At the time, Millie was enrolled at St. John’s High School in Cambridge, where she was introduced to Tom. She and Tom began dating. Upon graduation, she took a job at the treasurer’s office in Somerville to continue supporting her family while Tom went to Boston College. All the hardships in their respective lives were made easier by their time together and with friends. On the weekends they could be found at the Cotton Club dancing or on the overnight boat toward the nightlife in New York City.

Millie had a determination in all that she did, especially when it came to Tom. Finally in 1941, after 11 years of dating, Millie asked (yes, she asked) Tom to marry her. (Family legend has it that it may have been more of an ultimatum — marry me or I’m gone forever.)

Millie and Tom married on June 16, 1941, the day after her 27th birthday. They spent their honeymoon watching Joe Louis defeat Billy Conn at the Polo Grounds to retain his heavyweight title. This unlikely choice of honeymoon spots would prove to be an apt metaphor for their lives together — a show of strength, agility, blood, sweat and tears, all in the public eye.

Two years later their first child was born, and over the next nine years they were blessed with four more. In 1952, Tom was elected to Congress and became a member of the “Sunday to Thursday club,” driving to Washington with Rep. Eddie Boland (D-Mass.) on Sunday nights and back to Boston on Thursday nights. Tom had to split his limited time between his family and his constituents. The task of running the family was left almost completely to Millie.

There are many stories of Millie and how she handled the family. She managed her five children while drying her handwashed laundry outside by tying one son to the fence and bringing another outside in his crib. She then managed the almost impossible task of keeping the other three active children in the yard.

Millie was in charge, period. She governed every facet of her household, from disciplining the children to balancing the finances; from buying the groceries to feeding a family of seven; from helping with homework to buying and mending clothes; from supporting her husband in his endeavors and always having the house open to any constituents. She was the foundation of the family, the rock, the true North. The tougher things got, the better she was.

In 1977, her husband became Speaker of the House. Their children had grown and were establishing themselves in the world, and Millie left Cambridge to join her husband in Washington. After raising five children on her own without much money or help, Washington was easy. She developed legions of fans and friends among the rich and powerful, attracted by her strength, integrity and, above all, her enduring humor. Millie stood out against the backdrop of Washington, D.C., society as a woman of principle, charm and wit.

She lived a public life in times of great tragedy, great innovation and great doubt. Her determination, grace and humor underscored her belief in ordinary people’s ability to rise to extraordinary heights. Furthermore, she epitomized a generation of women who were rooted in two World Wars and the Depression.

They were hard-working, independent and industrial women who enabled their husbands to go out and look for work. After the wars, the men were better able to pursue the American dream while the women stayed at home and made their search possible. By their grit, perseverance and love for all things human they were able to pave the roads for their daughters and granddaughters, so they too could fight for a broader concept of the American dream for both sexes. So, to be quite frank, she was right when she said they don’t make ’em like her anymore.

Catlin O’Neill is executive assistant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).