A VETERAN of Wigan’s political scene is to be awarded one of the borough’s highest honours.
Former councillor John O’Neill, who for six of his 18 years in office was the local authority’s deputy leader, returns to the town hall later this month to have the title of honorary alderman conferred on him.
The ex-teacher joins a distinguished list of senior local government figures rewarded in such a way for their long and exceptional service to the area.
He said: “It is a big honour and I am very grateful to the council for this recognition.”
During his time representing Shevington and Standish (the boundaries of his ward changed over the years) he held many positions of responsibility in finance, social services, regulation and planning.
Mr O’Neill can be credited with helping to establish the Greenheart Regional Park and was much involved in the introduction and expansion of the Wigan Borough in Bloom scheme. His desire to do things that shook off grimy industrial stereotypes also included the establishment of the now annual design and development competition aimed at creating a more attractive borough.
The 79-year-old, who lives in Shevington with wife Barbara, also founded Standish Community Forum 20 years ago and Shevington and District Community Association several years later to encourage greater community involvement across a range of interests – a concept since adopted by several other areas of the borough.
Surrey-born and schooled in Hampshire (one of the few people to live in a council house but attend public school!), Mr O’Neill however probably knows more about his patch’s heritage than almost anyone else, having immersed himself in local history. He was a driving force behind getting Lancashire Day going locally and was involved in all manner of projects to enhance the appearance of Standish and Shevington while raising public awareness of the communities’ pasts.
And while he is now in his 80th year and it is seven years since he stood down as a councillor he has still been highly prominent in numerous other fields. They include:
Championing Wigan Schools Music Service to the point of providing bursaries to youngsters who can’t afford instrumental fees and helping to fund the Schools Music Festival;
Continuing to serve on the board of Wigan Metropolitan Development Company;
Serving on the Wigan Borough Environment and Heritage Network (he is a former chairman).
As a young man Mr O’Neill looked like he was going to follow his father into the civil service and was posted to the Admiralty where he met his Wigan-born wife-to-be in 1954. But after getting fed up with the daily commute between Guidlford and London, he moved into commerce with the Henley Telegraph Company in Dorking and then a similar job in Weybridge for Valiant and Viscount Aircraft.
Another career change took him into teaching, and the day after he qualified from St Mary’s College (part of the University of London) he married Barbara in 1959 and got a job in a local Ashton school.
Gaining a higher diploma in education, he then began teaching history and economics at Wigan’s Notre Dame High School, then its namesake in Woolton, Liverpool, where he became head of those subjects (plus general studies) and ended his career at St Dominic’s Secondary School in Huyton.
Always a sporty man (he played football for the Admiralty) it was cross country running which cut his teaching career short. A nasty gash to his leg in a fall while out on the fells left him with such a bad case of septicaemia that he was hospitalised for months and doctors said that had he not been so fit he might well have died.
But retirement only opened up new avenues and in the 1980s he became involved in the cultural side of the borough, joining the then Wigan Arts Council, becoming its secretary and working closely with Wigan Council’s leisure and amenities department and was heavily involved in the 1984 Orwell Festival as well as the running of the annual Wigan Music Festival. For a period also a magistrate, he was elected to the council for Labour in 1990.
He and Barbara have a daughter, Helen, and two grandchildren: Tom and Lizzy.
The alderman ceremony will take place on Wednesday April 22 at the latest full council meeting.