Some 30 years ago, a Globe investigative reporter wondered how tough he should be in a story about corrupt judges, and sought guidance from Gerry O’Neill, editor of the Spotlight Team.
“Write it so it scares you,” Mr. O’Neill said.
Fine advice, though when Mr. O’Neill himself sat down to write, those most likely to tremble were the officials whose misdeeds he chronicled under the byline Gerard M. O’Neill.
“The worst thing that anyone who had something to hide could hear was, ‘Gerry O’Neill’s on the phone and wants to talk. He has a few questions,’ ” said Timothy Leland, founding editor of the Spotlight Team. “That would send shivers down the spine of anyone in the city.”
Mr. O’Neill was 76 when he died in his Boston home Thursday, about three years after being diagnosed with a persistent lung ailment.
One of Boston’s top investigative journalists during his more than 35 years with the Globe and subsequent time as a best-selling author, Mr. O’Neill was a founding member of the Spotlight Team in 1970. Two years later, the team was honored with its first Pulitzer Prize, for exposing rampant corruption in Somerville.
Stories he wrote sent a who’s who of prominent Massachusetts officials to jail, whether they hailed from city halls or the State House, police departments or the Financial District. [From left to right: Gerard M. O'Neill, Thomas Winship, Ann Desantis, Stephen A. Kurkjian, and Timothy Leland of the Globe celebrated after receiving word that they won the 1972 Pulitzer for Local Investigative Specialized Reporting for their exposure of widespread corruption in Somerville.]
He helped expose gangster James “Whitey” Bulger as an FBI informant, and he also led a Spotlight Team that was the 1997 finalist for an investigative reporting Pulitzer, detailing how retired public employees abused the disability benefits system.
Such honors, along with the books he wrote, are only part of Mr. O’Neill’s investigative reporting legacy. He trained numerous reporters and editors, including some who went on to run the Spotlight Team and win top awards for the Globe and other publications.
“He was extraordinary,” said Brian Mooney, a former Globe reporter who had been on the Spotlight Team. “He was tough. He was relentless. He was fair. He was a great leader.”
Mr. O’Neill had an innate feel for the marathon pace and strength investigative projects require — so different from the staccato sprint of a newsroom’s daily journalism. That understanding made him a natural for books, including “Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal” (2000) and “Whitey: The Life of America’s Most Notorious Mob Boss” (2013). He cowrote those two books with former Spotlight reporter Dick Lehr, and “Black Mass” was made into a 2015 movie starring Johnny Depp as Bulger.
“Gerry was calm, persistent, dogged,” said Lehr, a journalism professor at Boston University.
“The greatest lesson we learned from him is this notion that when we go out to gather information, and run into all these obstacles, we will get frustrated,” Lehr added. “Gerry would say, ‘We just have to keep going. They think we’ll move on to the next story, but we’re not going away. We’ll do what we have to do.’ ”
Such perseverance might suggest that Mr. O’Neill had neither the time nor the taste for anything other than work. The opposite was true.
“Gerry could come off as a tall intimidating figure in the newsroom, but anyone who knew him saw his deeply compassionate side, especially his devotion to family,” said Patricia Wen, Spotlight’s current editor, whom Mr. O’Neill chose to work on the team years ago.
“I arrived as a Spotlight reporter having just finished a maternity leave, and soon to have another child,” Wen said. “I’ll never forget how Gerry pushed me to produce my best, but also never questioned the need to leave work early for a sick child.”
Lehr recalled that “way before it became a term or an approach, he talked about life balance,” and the need to keep family a priority during projects that stretched for months, or more than a year.
Mr. O’Neill also “really supported women at a time when advancement at the Globe could be a battle if you were a woman in the newsroom,” said Joan Vennochi, a Globe associate editor and op-ed columnist.
“I wouldn’t be at the Globe without him, since he literally hired me for my first job as a researcher on the Spotlight team,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made it to staff reporter without his backing.”
And he inspired everyone in the newsroom to hold accountable anyone who betrayed the public’s trust.
“Gerry never flinched in the face of power or sacred cows,” Vennochi said. “He believed in the story.”
Born in Boston on Sept. 1, 1942, Gerard Michael O’Neill was the older of two siblings and grew up in Stoughton. His father, Richard O’Neill, was a postal inspector in town. His mother, Mary Sweeney, was a nurse who was known by her middle name, Claire.
Mr. O’Neill graduated from Stoughton High School and attended Stonehill College, from which he received a bachelor’s degree in English in 1964.
While there, he met another student, Janet Reardon, who would become a high school math teacher, and whom he would marry in 1968.
After a year at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., Mr. O’Neill returned to Boston and began working at the Globe. He also earned a master’s in journalism from Boston University, where he would later teach.
At the Globe, he was a copy boy and an intern, and a reporter in the suburbs, the State House, and City Hall before the fateful day that legendary Globe editor Thomas Winship gave Leland the go-ahead to form the first Spotlight investigative reporting team.
“Tom said I could choose anybody I wanted on the staff to be part of this three-member team,” recalled Leland, who would later serve as managing editor of the Globe and assistant to the publisher. “I went directly from his office to Gerry O’Neill’s desk.”
The third member of the team was Stephen Kurkjian, who would go on to become a three-time Pulitzer winner.
“Gerry was really the reporter amongst us,” Kurkjian said. “Of our generation, Gerry taught us all how to do investigative reporting.”
Mr. O’Neill was so prepared — knowing more about interviewees’ backgrounds than the subjects themselves — that once when he and Kurkjian drove up to an interview in Woburn, the person they sought spotted them, bolted from the building, and began running away.
Even the fleetest of foot couldn’t hide from Mr. O’Neill’s reporting, however.
“Gerry had the demeanor of a state trooper, with the heart of your favorite teacher,” said Brian McGrory, the Globe’s current editor. “The guy could be intimidating just by walking into a room. He is one of the key people in the history of this organization to make the Spotlight Team the force that it is — always with an unerring sense of the role we play and how we should play it.”
Mr. O’Neill’s Spotlight Team work on Somerville corruption was also honored, in 1972, with a Distinguished Public Service award from Sigma Delta Chi, the national society of journalists’ organization. The series resulted in more than 100 criminal indictments against officials, their associates, and companies.
Though Mr. O’Neill devoted months to such projects, “he didn’t let work devour his life,” said his son Shane, who lives in Boston.
“Not everyone could accomplish what he accomplished and still be there as a husband and a father, and he did that,” Shane added. “In his mind, they were two worlds, and it takes balance to do them both well. He did both well.”
In addition to his wife, Janet, and son Shane, Mr. O’Neill leaves another son, Brian of Needham; his sister, Maureen Dennis of Freemont, N.H.; and two grandchildren.
A wake will begin at 4 p.m. Monday in Eaton Funeral Home in Needham. A funeral Mass will be said at 10 a.m. Tuesday in St. Joseph Church in Needham.
In newsrooms, some reporters are known for their tenacious ability to root out information, others for their deft ability with delicate interviews, and still others for their finesse as writers.
A rarity, Mr. O’Neill was accomplished at all three.
Perched atop his urgent stories were first sentences that would do a mystery writer proud. Who wouldn’t want to know what comes next after this opening, from his first Globe bylined story in 1966: “Two years ago, the defendant might have gone to jail for 10 days to a year.”
In 2003, the end of his Globe byline era, he was still leaving readers at seat’s edge: “The last time I talked to Bill Bulger the subject was 75 State St., the year was 1988, the footing was steeply uphill, and an odd request hung in the air.”
And no matter how powerful, those he interviewed would have preferred to be just about anywhere other than stuck in a room with Mr. O’Neill.
In 1974, he sat across from Edward M. Kennedy, during the senator’s first public interview about the Chappaquiddick crash that killed Mary Jo Kopechne. As Kennedy kept referring to his inquest transcripts, Mr. O’Neill grew as impatient as he would with any recalcitrant subject.
“If your answers are honest,” Mr. O’Neill said drily, “you shouldn’t have to look at your notes.”
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