Michael G. O’Neill, top administrator to both the Beaufort County and Town of Hilton Head Island governments after retiring as a U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, died Sunday at Beaufort Memorial Hospital. He was 80.
O’Neill was known as a whiz in finance. He did not mince words and shaped local governments with strong management skills honed in the Marine Corps.
There’s a lot of things I wish I had done better. But only the mediocre are at their best all of the time.
Professionally, he said he was guided by three simple principles: “Know your job, look after your people — and you have to be a man about it.
“I always look before I jump. I know the issues. I know the players, and I know where the potholes are.”
As county administrator through most of the 1980s, he led the earliest planning to move the county government complex to the corner of Ribaut Road and Boundary Street in Beaufort.
As town manager on Hilton Head from 1991 through 1994, he was a key player in acquiring a town hall site, and getting the new town hall financed and renovated. He led the sticky task of consolidating two island fire departments and putting the combined department, along with a then-volunteer rescue squad, under the town’s umbrella. He pushed for testing for an alternate future source of drinking water following a public outcry against the potential for some island utilities going exclusively to Savannah River water. He was a champion of the town’s land-buying program for parks, open space and the site for the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic. He bought the first tracts, and devised a way for a special millage to pay for land acquisition.
“There’s a lot of things I wish I had done better,” he said when his contract was being renewed in 1992. “But only the mediocre are at their best all of the time.”
The late Frank Chapman, a former mayor, said when O’Neill left the town post for health reasons following heart bypass surgery, that one of his greatest attributes was his “strong character.”
“He’s been a good man in a lot of ways; we’re grateful for his job in the past. He’s done a lot of good service for the town.”
Another mayor, the late Harvey Ewing, said, “The man does the job and does it very well.”
Henry Driessen Jr., who served on the initial Town Council, said that when O’Neill came aboard “things started to fall in line.”
Between his terms as government administrator, O’Neill ran unsuccessfully for county treasurer.
He also played with the Beaufort Symphony Orchestra, a friend said.
Steve Riley, who succeeded O’Neill as town manager and was recruited to the town staff by O’Neill to be community development director, said, “He was a gruff guy, but he was great to work for. He was smart, and no-nonsense. He had a lot of great life experiences. He could make decisions and get on with it. He taught me a lot.”
Survivors include his wife, Liz, a former Beaufort Academy teacher, of the home on Callawassie Island.