C. W. O'Neill

From Ohio History Central

C. William O'Neill was Ohio's fifty-ninth governor.

O'Neill was born on February 14, 1916, in Marietta, Ohio. After attending public schools in Marietta, he enrolled at Marietta College, graduating in 1938. Desiring to become a lawyer, O'Neill then entered The Ohio State University Law School. Upon graduating in 1942, he joined his father's law practice in Marietta.

From a young age, O'Neill also sought a political career. He was a member of the Republican party, and when he was only twenty-two years of age, Washington County voters elected him to the Ohio House of Representatives. O'Neill was the youngest person elected to the Ohio legislature before the 2001 election of 18-year-old Derrick Seaver. O'Neill remained in the Ohio House from 1939 to 1950, serving six terms in a row. He also was the Speaker of the Ohio House during 1947 and 1948. During World War II, O'Neill took a leave from his duties from 1943 to 1946 to serve in the United States Army, attaining the rank of sergeant, but his constituents continued to reelect him to office.

In 1950, O'Neill sought to become the Ohio Attorney General. He won the election and became the youngest person to become attorney general in Ohio's history. As attorney general, O'Neill's greatest contribution was his war against narcotic drugs. He also determined that the Ohio Board of Education could withhold state monies from school districts that practiced segregation. O'Neill remained as attorney general from January 1951 until January 1957, when he became Ohio's governor, having won election in 1956. In the election, O'Neill easily defeated the Democratic Party's candidate, Michael V. DiSalle, by more than 400,000 votes.

As Ohio's fifty-ninth governor, O'Neill achieved numerous accomplishments. Perhaps most important was the financing of interstate highways thanks to the United States government's passage of the Interstate Highway Act. Highways helped Ohioans gain quick and easy access to most parts of the state. Before this point, the state had authorized the building of highways in only small sections--rarely more than a few dozen miles in length. At O'Neill's urging, the state legislature now authorized grander projects that were designed to connect major cities together. O'Neill also worked tirelessly to increase the wages for lower-level state employees.

O'Neill's most controversial decision was his support of a "right-to-work" constitutional amendment. This proposed amendment called for the end of unionized businesses in Ohio. Ohio voters refused to approve the amendment, with it failing by more than one million votes. O'Neill's support of this measure and his refusal to provide political benefits to Ohio Republicans at the local level caused him to be defeated in the election of 1958. His opponent was Michael V. DiSalle again. This time, DiSalle won by more than 400,000 votes.

Following his term as governor, O'Neill resumed his legal career. He maintained law offices in both Columbus and in Marietta. He also accepted a position as distinguished professor of public affairs at Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. Within two years, O'Neill returned to the public sector. He was elected to the Ohio Supreme Court in 1960. O'Neill first served as a justice of the Supreme Court and then became chief justice in 1970. As justice, O'Neill participated in several important cases, most notably was Lonzrick v. Republic Steel Corporation. In this case, the Ohio Supreme Court, at O'Neill's urging, determined that businesses could be held liable for any injuries that their products caused, even if the company was not negligent in any way.

O'Neill remained on the Ohio Supreme Court until his death on August 20, 1978, in Columbus, Ohio.

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