St. Louis County commissioner and longtime community organizer Steve O’Neil died Tuesday from a rare and aggressive form of thyroid cancer. He was 63.
O’Neil moved to Duluth in the 1970s to earn his master’s degree at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He went on to help form Minnesota COACT, an advocacy group focusing on social justice issues.
During his years as a community organizer he met and befriended college professor and eventual Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. He often stayed at their home in Northfield and spoke at Wellstone’s college classes.
“Paul and Sheila were part of the inspiration that encouraged me to run for office,” O’Neil said at a memorial service last fall on the 10th anniversary of Wellstone’s death in a plane crash.
“There’s a piece of this work for each of us in this movement,” he told the crowd assembled on the Iron Range. “None of us are going to be Sheila or Paul, or possess their unique skills. But each of us can emulate the words on their gravestone: ‘Dedicated, loving, and devoted, to our creator, our family, our friends, to our community, and to our issues for a more just and loving world.’”
O’Neil was first elected to the St. Louis County Board in 2005. He was re-elected to a third term last November. Shortly thereafter he announced his cancer diagnosis.
“I didn’t always see eye to eye on political things,” said fellow St. Louis County board member Mike Forsman of Ely. “We came from different backgrounds. But I always respected his viewpoint and his integrity and the life he lived because he was a man of his conviction.”
“I honestly believe that if he doesn’t make it to heaven, nobody will,” added Forsman.
According to the O’Neil family, a visitation will be held Saturday, July 20, 6-10 p.m., at Peace United Church of Christ in Duluth. The funeral service will be Sunday at 1 p.m. in the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center auditorium.
St. Louis County Administrator Kevin Gray said the county is working with the county attorney and county auditor to review state statute on proper procedure for filling a vacant commissioner seat.
The last time the county had a commissioner vacancy mid-term was in 2000, when Liz Prebich resigned. In that case, a special election was held.