James E. O’Neil Sr. was an outstanding Chesterfield citizen who is still held in high regards. His life reads like a book of public service to Chesterfield and New Hampshire. He was born in New York City and attended Eaglebrook School (Deerfield, MA), Deerfield Academy, and the University of New Hampshire. He and his wife Dorothy (Perkins) moved to Chesterfield in 1947 and raised their four children here, James E. Jr., Judith, Kathleen and William W., who was killed in Vietnam on Jan. 21, 1970.
The list of his local public service is impressive: Town Moderator for 22 years, Member of the Chesterfield School Board, Chairman of the Chesterfield Conservation Commission, Chesterfield Children’s Aid and Treasurer of the Chesterfield Salvation Army Unit.
He went on to further serve Chesterfield in the NH House of Representatives (1959 – 1974). He was Deputy Speaker of the House (1971 – 1972) and Speaker of the House (1973 – 1974). While in the Legislature he served on the Legislative Council, the Education Committee, Fish and Game Committee, the Rules Committee, and the NH Court Accreditation Commission. In his Legislative leadership role, he served as Chairman of the Natural Resources Task Force and the National Legislative Conference’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee. Plus, he was a member of the Advisory Council and National Conference of State Legislative Leaders.
He worked as an Education Consultant and was a member of the National School Boards Association, and the Education Commission of the States (1970 – 1974). Beside his professional work, he found time to serve as trustee for Elliot Community Hospital and the Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, NH, and as Chairman of the YMCA Youth and Government Committee.
Throughout his life he was regarded as a true friend and a man of honor, thus earning him the nickname “Gentleman Joe”. He was an excellent speaker who spoke well of others, but who never sought plaudits for his own contribution. And those accolades were numerous. He was given honorary degrees from Franklin Pierce College and New England College. Keene State College awarded him the “Granite State Award” and the University of New Hampshire honored him with the “Profile Service Award”.
On November 5, 2005, an 80-acre woodland, The James O’Neil, Sr. Forest on Gulf Road was dedicated to him. This is part of the Wantastiquet-Monadnock Greenway Project. To those outside of New Hampshire, it may seem like he is a small fish in a big pond. To the folks in Chesterfield, he filled that pond to overflowing.