Former Long Beach Beverly O’Neill was taking her daily, leisurely walk Friday on the boardwalk along the beach. On a leash with her was her loyal companion, Coco, a cute bichon frise with a ferocious bark when strangers approach.
The sun was shining. It was a balmy 72 degrees with a gentle breeze coming off the water. Another beautiful day in Long Beach.
“What could be better than this?” said O’Neill. “I feel so lucky to have been born and raised in Long Beach. It is such a great city. I just love it.”
On Sept. 8, O’Neill, one of the most beloved people in Long Beach, will be celebrating her 90th birthday in the city she loves.
Did she mind being reminded of that aging milestone?
“Maybe at one time, but not anymore,” she told me.
“Oh, I guess the reality of it all,” she said. “I’m in good health. I have good friends and family.” And, with a laugh, she said, “I’m just glad to still be here. Just call me a very happy senior citizen.”
O’Neill said there’s only one frustrating thing about turning 90.
“That’s being forgetful about certain things,” she said. “I can remember what happened in my childhood, but I can’t remember where I put my phone this morning.”
She also acknowledged that it’s not as easy to get around, but some of that is because she stopped driving her car about a year ago. Friends and her daughter, Teresa, who lives in Belmont Shore, now pick her up for outings — although those visits have been reduced by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I spend a lot of time now talking to Coco and my cat, Pumpkin,” she said with a grin. Jokingly, I asked her if they talk back to her. “No, but they understand what I say,” she said.
As someone who used to be always on the go, she said she is finding it enjoyable to be able to just relax, read books and not worry about the next meeting.
Life was not always so relaxing for O’Neill.
Mike Murray, a longtime friend and Verizon executive, said O’Neill “will go down in history as the mayor who held Long Beach together in the ’90s when it was literally falling apart at the seams.
“The loss of the Navy Base and Shipyard was going to be devastating by all accounts, except for a mayor who loved Long Beach and never met a problem that could not be solved with innovation, grit and that glad-to-see-you smile,” Murray said. “Her love for Long Beach was contagious and fueled those around her as much as it did her.”
Jerry Miller, former Long Beach city manager, said O’Neill has been “a peerless and selfless leader, the best possible mayor for her moment in time. Those who have worked closely with her have been left with a lifetime of incredible memories resulting from her 12 years in office.”
Miller said O’Neill “changed the game” for Long Beach’s presence in Sacramento, Washington, D.C. and nationally “at a time when the city was struggling with the severe economic dislocation caused from Navy Base and Shipyard closures, historic reductions in aerospace manufacturing and the critical need to respond with an economic recovery strategy.”
O’Neill took the city’s message directly to the top, calling on President Bill Clinton and his key staff members. Clinton made trips to Long Beach and called O’Neill his favorite mayor. O’Neill also called on U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Congressman Steve Horn, Gov. Pete Wilson and many others.
During her mayoral tenure from 1994 to 2006, which included an unprecedented third term as a write-in candidate, O’Neill created what became known as the “Three T Strategy — Trade, Tourism and Technology.” It worked and helped pull Long Beach out of the doldrums.
While she was mayor, O’Neill helped rebuild downtown, which included construction of the nationally recognized Aquarium of the Pacific, and found new revenue in building the Towne Center on the city’s east side.
Those were heady days for O’Neill, who never fancied herself as a politician and had to be talked into running for mayor in 1993. She had retired as president-superintendent of Long Beach City College and was looking forward to spending some time relaxing.
“I never wanted to be a politician, but I wanted to save the city I loved,” she said. “It was a challenge I really enjoyed. I ran on a positive platform and didn’t attack anyone.”
O’Neill has had challenges all of her life. She was born on Sept. 8, 1930, to Flossie and Clarence Lewis, who had moved to Long Beach from South Dakota.
Unfortunately, her father had a drinking problem and had trouble holding a job. Her mother worked at a laundry and sent her daughter to the Long Beach Day Nursery.
O’Neill learned how to be independent. She remembered that, when she was a young girl, her mother would give her a nickel to ride the bus downtown to pay their utility bills. Her mother couldn’t do it because of her work.
Her mother started the Flossie Lewis Recovery Center for women and held the first Al-Anon meetings in Long Beach in her home.
O’Neill said those meetings had perhaps the single most important impact on her life.
“I saw people who were in desperate situations and, with help, they got out of the gutter and led useful lives,” she said. “Some of the changes I saw were miraculous.”
O’Neill would later go on to Poly High School, Long Beach City College and Cal State Long Beach, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education music in 1952 and a master’s degree in counseling and guidance in 1957. She earned her doctorate in education from USC in 1977.
She always wanted to be a teacher and did so for a short time.
But did she ever want to be mayor of Long Beach?
“Are you kidding,” she said with a laugh. “I never dreamed of it.”
She did get elected to the women’s student association at LBCC in her first run for any kind of office. That led to a variety of positions, ending with her gaining the top job at LBCC as president-superintendent.
Last week I asked her what she has been proudest of in her illustrious career.
“Without a doubt, I am proudest of how we were able to bring pride back to the city and how residents became proud of their city again,” she said. “People were really in a woe-is-me situation. I am pleased I was able to help bring them out of that and feel good about themselves.”
I couldn’t end the interview without asking O’Neill what her secret was to her longevity.
“I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink,” she said with her famous smile. “But, really, I think it’s because I have a strong faith, and I thank God every day for my life. I enjoy every day I’m here.”
O’Neill said she will always be available to help her city.
“Anytime I am asked to give back, I want to give back. Long Beach is the best city there is anywhere,” she said.
Is she going to do anything special for her 90th when she becomes a nonagenarian?
“No, I’m just going to enjoy the day,” she said. “I may have to take a little nap later in the day.”
That’s okay, Beverly. Take that nap. You’ve earned it.