James Francis "Shirt-sleeves" O'Neill, a retired lawyer who had served as mayor of Bel Air in the early 1970s, died of cancer Monday at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium. He was 86.
"Jim was a character, spontaneous, funny and off the wall sometimes but not all the time," said Todd Holden, a former Aegis reporter and photographer who was a longtime friend.
"He used to ride a minibike when gas went through the roof, and always had a Red Baron white scarf around his neck as he made his way around town," said Mr. Holden. "He was eccentric, but aren't we all in some way or other?"
The son of Howard S. O'Neill, a lawyer and state senator, and Madeleine Robinson O'Neill, a homemaker, James Francis O'Neill was born in Baltimore and raised in Bel Air. After graduating from Bel Air High School in 1943, he served in the Navy for two years.
He earned a bachelor's degree in physics in 1948 from what is now Loyola University Maryland, and in 1950 earned a degree in electrical engineering from the Johns Hopkins University.
Mr. O'Neill was a 1952 graduate of the University of Maryland School of Law and in 1965 earned a degree in accounting from the Baltimore College of Commerce. In 1969, he received his Juris Doctor degree in law from the University of Maryland.
After earning his electrical engineering degree, he worked in Detroit for Westinghouse Electric Corp. for several years before returning to Bel Air, where he joined his father's law firm specializing in insurance and accounting.
A Republican, Mr. O'Neill entered politics in 1968 when he was elected a Bel Air town commissioner.
"An articulate speaker, whose somewhat prim manner is in decided contrast to the warm, folksy style of his older brother, John, he holds degrees in physics, law, accounting and engineering," said a 1974 Baltimore Sun profile of Mr. O'Neill.
Mr. O'Neill's late brother, John H. O'Neill, a farmer, was also a longtime veteran of Harford County Republican politics. He had served as president of the Harford County Council and as a member of the Regional Planning Council.
James O'Neill was elected mayor in 1971 and again for a second term in 1973.
"When he won election to the town commission, I was covering town government for the Aegis, and in his first session, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and said, 'Let's get to work,'" said Mr. Holden.
"I did a photograph of him that night and nicknamed him 'Jim "Shirt-sleeves" O'Neill,' and it stuck. He loved it. In every town parade he was in, there he was, shirt-sleeves and all," he said.
After being elected mayor in 1971, Mr. O'Neill kept his suit jacket on and modified his image by donning a red carnation in his lapel, thereafter being known as the "Man with the red carnation," observed The Evening Sun at the time.
Mr. O'Neill told The Evening Sun that the change was brought about because of the "dignity of the office of mayor."
"I just created a symbol for myself. It has no particular meaning," he told the newspaper. "Now I wear it to all official functions. I have a standing order with a florist to deliver a red carnation every Monday, the commission's meeting day."
Mr. O'Neill left politics in 1974 after unsuccessfully challenging Arthur H. Helton Jr., a Democrat, for the Maryland Senate seat that had been vacated by William S. James.
Reflecting on his years as mayor, Mr. O'Neill cited the appointment of a full-time town administrator, the establishment of an urban renewal commission, and the completion of a three-year traffic and parking problems study as major accomplishments of his administration.
"Jim O'Neill was a well-respected member of an old Harford County family who were dedicated to public service. All of his family gave a lot to the community," said Harford County Circuit Judge William O. Carr. "He cared deeply about the people and town of Bel Air, and was always a pleasant and well-meaning man."
Retiring from the practice of law in 1983, Mr. O'Neill moved to Selbyville, Del., where he lived for more than 25 years and was active in the ministry of St. Luke and St. Andrew Roman Catholic churches in Ocean City.
In addition to his church work, Mr. O'Neill was a world traveler and an avid fisherman. In 2010, he moved to Avondell, a Bel Air retirement community.
Mr. O'Neill was also an accomplished griller.
"He taught my mom how to 'properly grill' a steak. He brought over a tray of briquettes, and when they were ready, he laid a fillet right on the coals," recalled Mr. Holden. "Both sides, three minutes each. My mom was furious, and dad said it was the best steak he'd ever had."
A memorial Mass will be held at 11 a.m. Nov. 28 at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, 533 E. Jarrettsville Road, Forest Hill.
Mr. O'Neill is survived by four daughters, Kathleen Buechel of Bel Air, Maureen Cooper of San Francisco, Colleen O'Neill of Cornish, N.H., and Eileen O'Neill of Burbank, Calif.; two brothers, Harry O'Neill of Baltimore and Dan O'Neill of Bel Air; two sisters, Peggy Creel of Arlington, Va., and Nancy Rideout of Lebanon, N.H.; and four grandchildren. His marriage to the former Margaret Large ended in divorce.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the date for Mr. O'Neill's services. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun