Dennis O'Neil, former Newport Beach mayor and Citizen of the Year, dies at 78

Dennis "Denny" O'Neil, a former Newport Beach mayor who was recognized as Citizen of the Year in 2006, died Friday.

The longtime Newport resident died of complications related to pulmonary fibrosis. He was 78.

O'Neil was assistant city attorney and city attorney for Newport from 1969 to 1979. He served on the City Council from 1994 to 2002, including a one-year stint as mayor in 1999.

O'Neil also maintained a private practice as a municipal land-use attorney

His contributions to the community were many, community leaders said Friday.

O'Neil served on the Orange County Public Law Library board from 2003 to 2008 and as counsel to Hoag Hospital's board of directors for more than 25 years.

At the time of his death, he was vice chairman of Newport Beach & Co., the city's nonprofit marketing agency, which called him "one of the city's most influential political voices, advising both elected and business leaders on a range of issues."

"I cannot express how difficult it is to lose Denny," Gary Sherwin, president and chief executive of Newport Beach & Co., said in a statement. "His contributions to our organization as an Executive Committee member have been hugely significant, including his pro bono legal work on our behalf. He was always a wise and thoughtful voice during and between our meetings, as well as a dear and loyal friend.

"He was completely devoted to our cause and mission, and this loss is devastating."

Debbie Snavely, the organization's chairwoman, added that his "wit, intellect and dedication to the best interests of the city will be very sadly missed. He has left a hole in the community that will not be filled anytime soon."

Newly elected Councilman Will O'Neill said he will remember O'Neil "fondly for the lunches we shared, notes he wrote and phone calls he made to encourage me as a father, husband and servant. And, of course, he wanted to know why I spelled my last name with two l's instead of one."

O'Neil battled polio as a child in Oakland, which left him with limited use of his left arm.

According to Newport Beach & Co., after graduating from USC, he crewed a vessel on a difficult voyage to Tahiti. During it, when he was adrift at sea for 30 days without wind, he was introspective and thought about what he wanted to do with his life.

It led him to go to law school at UC Hastings in San Francisco.

Former City Manager Homer Bludau, who served from 1999 to 2009, called O'Neil a "wonderful person" of high integrity.

"He understood the community really well," Bludau said. "He had personal relationships with so many people. Everyone trusted him because he had the highest of integrity ... he could always find a way of building compromises in order to make both sides satisfied with the outcome."

In March 2006, months before officially being named Citizen of the Year, O'Neil said he was surprised when he learned he was the recipient of the award.

"I was wondering when they'd run out of worthy people to give it to," he joked.

O'Neil was credited with helping annex Newport Coast, setting up the city's senior service, expanding its libraries, dealing with tough environmental rules and, as city attorney, preventing a freeway from being built along Coast Highway.

"I kind of became a hero," O'Neil said of that victory. "And I liked it, and I've been going downhill ever since."

O'Neil is survived by his wife, Thais; sister Nancy O'Neil; daughter Molly Proul and a granddaughter.

A public memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church, 2046 Mar Vista Drive, Newport Beach. Graveside services will be private.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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