A Tribute to Dan O’Neill
There are questions commonly asked these days: Where are the admirable leaders? Where do we find the skilled, the committed, the community-minded, the good-hearted? What happened to old-fashioned integrity and trust?
Unfortunately, our region and the entire Commonwealth lost an individual possessing all these traits with the passing of Lieutenant General Dan O’Neill. But we were blessed with his inspiring presence and his four-star performance for a very long time.
Because of his physical stature, most of us had to look up to him, literally. Because of his moral stature and impeccable character, we had the privilege of looking up to him in the figurative sense as well.
When people talk about Dan, it is almost always about his personal qualities, the characteristics that made him a friend, mentor, advisor, and role model to so many. His life was guided by what he wanted to give, rather than what he wanted to take. Always there was balance. This was not a man who sacrificed family life for professional advancement.
Years ago, then Governor Tom Ridge wanted to name Dan as state Adjutant General. Without question, Dan was eminently qualified, and this would provide the platform to accomplish some needed things for the Guard and for veterans. But Dan had family and community commitments that he could not surrender, irrespective of the title or position being offered, so he declined. People trusted him and relied on him because they knew his word was good and his priorities were straight.
His words counted, because they were born from action, experience, and prudence. No seeking the spotlight, no courting controversy, no dividing people for devious purposes. When he spoke, it was measured and meaningful.
His resume is exceptional – military man, educator, community leader. If we took just one of his endeavors, it was a life well-lived. In combination, his contributions and accomplishments are extensive and extraordinary.
The Pennsylvania National Guard has a solid reputation and a record of dependability. That is a reflection of quality up and down the ranks. But for a team to constantly perform at its best, you need good leaders, and Dan was beyond good.
When he found his place and purpose, he stuck with it. Education administrators tend to move around. They find a better situation. They are recruited. They are pushed out. They weary of the burden of responsibility and expectation. It is hard to find a match for the expressions of friendship and respect coming from his colleagues, his successors, and the community at large. Dan earned and received these in abundance.
There was another aspect of his leadership that was very uncommon. Wherever he was, whatever he touched, he made the situation better. Not just on his talents and contributions alone, as sizable as they were. When you were around him, you wanted to elevate your game. When Dan was involved, it meant that you were going to be extra careful not to spend any time in the gray areas of ethics or get within shouting distance of the line of misconduct. His ethical bearing was as ramrod straight as his military bearing.
It seems strange to describe the passing of a 78-year-old as unexpected. Dan was such a constant, such a stalwart, such a standard-setter, that we did not think about his mortality. Dan was always there, always to be counted on, and that seemed the natural state of things.
For anyone who wants to truly understand and appreciate the meaning of the phrase “leadership by example,” they can find it in the life of Daniel J. O’Neill. His life, his work, his values, his counsel, his contributions, these things will live on forever, in our hearts, across our communities. I am honored to have called him friend.