By Melissa Turosik
Daniel O’Neill sips on his coffee and cracks a couple jokes. He is a humble guy, funny at times, serious when he wants to be. “Fifty years isn’t what it’s cracked up to be,” he says in his deadpan humor and a glint in his Irish eyes.
The communications professor holds the unique distinction of being the longest serving faculty member at Youngstown State University. It’s an honor, O’Neill said, now approaching his 50th year of teaching.
O’Neill was born in Jamaica, New York and moved to Detroit at eight years old. O’Neill obtained his bachelor’s degree from Wayne College and went on to Bowling Green State for his masters. He accepted a teaching job at North Central College where he was Director of Forensics. He later got his Ph.D. from Michigan State in 1968, a year he said he will never forget.
Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Robert Kennedy was assassinated. The war in Vietnam was going poorly, with the deaths of soldiers overseas and the growing protests in the United States capturing the nightly news. On a more personal note, YSU had just become a state university and O’Neill was eyeing it as a place to teach.
“I’m a city kid,” O’Neill said. “I wanted to teach at an urban campus.”
O’Neill said his early years were shaped by the institution, its staff and by life-altering events. An ardent supporter of the university’s faculty union, O’Neill credits its work with improving salaries, working conditions and ensuring a good retirement for old timers like himself. One of the events that will be forever in his memory took place on May 4, 1970, just two years after he began teaching at YSU.
The Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at nearby Kent State University during a protest of the Vietnam War.
“All campuses were affected,” O’Neill said. “When we got word here on this campus about the shootings at Kent State, we got ready for a demonstration. And I can remember it was going to be out in the central court area across the street behind all the buildings here. There were security guards, armed guards getting ready in case they came onto our campus.”
Another event that affected O’Neill and the YSU community happened on Dec. 29, 1985, when the body of 19-year-old Gina Tenney was found floating in the Mahoning River. Tenney was a YSU student. She had been strangled and raped. There is a memorial for Tenney at YSU outside of Bliss Hall.
“There was a big investigation of it. They never really brought anyone to trial and years later they had enough DNA evidence to identify who the murderer was,” he said.
O’Neill is still going strong and can be spotted in classrooms in Meshel Hall or wheeling his roller suit case full of books across campus. He even outlasted a law passed in the 1990s requiring mandatory retirement at age 72. O’Neill is 79 years old and still teaching.
Dorian Mermer, an instructor in the communication department, has known O’Neill for over 27 years and has taught alongside him during that time.
Mermer recalls a time when the communication faculty took a trip to Chicago for a National Communication Association conference and how they witnessed a few colleagues bickering.
“They were arguing and picking on each other like brothers,” Mermer said. “He and I just sat there and watched the unplanned dinner show. My eyes were probably as big as saucers. He and I got a good chuckle about it afterward. Back then and still today, he is still known for his calm demeanor.”
Christopher Gabriel, a student of O’Neill’s in several classes, considers him a wonderful person.
“He recognizes everybody, and he always tells stories about his dogs,” Gabriel said. “His book, ‘Critical Thinking Principles and Strategies’, has helped me throughout my college career at YSU.”
Chet Cooper, a YSU Biology professor who has known O’Neill for 18 years and considers him a close buddy, said he got to know him well through the academic senate.
“He was a great debater and he would debate on lots of little things like general education policies and things like that,” Cooper said. “I would see this distinguished gentleman across the hall and across the aisle debating and holding conversations with everybody.”
Outside of the classroom O’Neill shares his life in Canfield with his wife and dogs, which to him are his greatest joys in life.
Throughout his 50 years at YSU, O’Neill was chair of the communication department twice, a trustee of the faculty union and the YSU men’s tennis coach.
O’Neill attributes his longevity to his students. He said people in Youngstown are friendly and family-oriented, something that has kept him here for so long.
“I enjoy YSU very much. I enjoy the students and the town,” O’Neill said.