Remembering Tip O'Neill: 25 Years After His Death, 'Mr. Speaker' Still Recalled Fondly

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Politics , Local History

O'Neill and Harwich resident and State Representative Shirley Gomes. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH – It is quiet this afternoon in Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Harwich Port.

At the edge of the cemetery, wind stirs the oak trees and the pines. Birds call out; a car passes nearby on Forest Street. A Rose of Sharon drops petals on the ground next to the polished granite bench that stands as a memorial to Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr., 47th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987. O’Neill first won election to the U.S. House in 1952, replacing John F. Kennedy, who was elected to the U.S. Senate that year.

O’Neill died 25 years ago, in January 1994, at age 81. While 1,700 people, including two former presidents, a vice-president and over 100 members of Congress attended his funeral in his hometown of Cambridge, his burial here in Harwich Port, not too far from his home, was private.

“This is where he wanted to be,” O’Neill’s son Thomas P. O’Neill 3rd said during a telephone conversation last week. Harwich was “the greatest love at the last part of his life.” After he retired from Washington, D.C. in 1987, Harwich became his father’s home town. In fact, during the summers, all five children of O’Neill and his wife Millie gathered in Harwich.

During his final years, O’Neill surrounded himself with family and friends. Two or three times a week O’Neill golfed at Eastward Ho! in Chatham. He loved Chatham’s Fourth of July parade and the Wayside Inn. “It was a perfect drifting off place,” the younger O’Neill says.

As the years have rolled along, O’Neill’s contemporaries, too, have died. One tends to hear fewer stories about O’Neill’s doings in local towns. Yet O’Neill’s four living children are still part-time residents of Harwich, and O’Neill’s stalwart friends have not forgotten him.

Jim Peterson’s parents sold O’Neill his house on Woodland Road in 1973 after renting houses to him in the 1960s. Today Peterson, 69, is sitting in his office at Peterson Realty on Route 28 in West Harwich. Two sketches of O’Neill grace the walls. One depicts him on a golf course, his trademark cigar between his lips. A fading photograph of O’Neill taken on Bank Street Beach is turned around on a bulletin board to keep the sun off it. All these years later, Peterson still refers to the late speaker as “Mr. O’Neill.”

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the relationship grew between the Petersons and the O’Neills. After O’Neill retired as speaker, he was in demand all over the country to give speeches. Peterson, then in his 30s, served as O’Neill’s “advance man.” He would make all the travel arrangements, pick O’Neill up, fly with him, and stay with him throughout the trip. “I was lucky—he was a great man and I learned a lot from him,” he says. “What a charitable, nice man he was.” He recalls people in airports around the country approaching O’Neill, who always took the time to talk with them.

Peterson says that few people realize how much O’Neill had to do with the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in the early 1960s. Several times a year he would drive along Route 6 up to Truro to visit the seashore and stop at the Land Ho! in Orleans for lunch on the way back.

John Murphy Sr., owner of Land Ho! for half a century now, still remembers what O’Neill ordered on those occasions: Corned beef on light rye and a mug of beer.

“He just had a way and was smart,” Murphy says. Among the many decorative business signs hanging from the ceiling in the dining room is one in gold letters on black honoring O’Neill: “Mr. Speaker.”

Stories used to abound among the golfing members at Eastward Ho! about O’Neill. He was, after all, the man who brought President Gerald Ford to golf at the club in 1989.

“I was very privileged to know the guy at a young age,” says Peter Lyons, now a Boston attorney, who met O’Neill in Washington, D.C. “He made me treat people the way you want to be treated.”

Lyons, who has a home in Harwich, was O’Neill’s frequent golf partner at Eastward Ho! There used to be a pay phone at the 13th hole of the golf course, Lyons recalls, and rumor was that the phone was installed there so that O’Neill could deal with urgent matters of state. O’Neill did use the phone, as it turned out. “He’d throw in a bunch of quarters and call his bookie,” Lyons says. “Right around kickoff all you’d get is a busy signal.” So the coins shot out of the phone as out of a slot machine. O’Neill would try to catch the coins in his shirt while Lyons urged him to come back to the golf game.

Lyons has a million amusing stories about O’Neill and the reception O’Neill got everywhere he went. But a common theme of everyone’s stories is how humble O’Neill was, and how much good he did. Take the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, now celebrating its 30th year. In the pantry’s early years O’Neill served as chair of its trustees and did a great deal to keep it up and running, even throwing fundraisers in his home. His family members have remained involved with the pantry.

“He was a regular guy who tried to help the little guy back when it actually meant something,” Lyons says.