Filing Tip

History, trivia - even cigars - permeate the large Thomas P.
O'Neill Jr. Collection

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Burns Library Archivist Leah Weisse never quite knew what she and her assistants would find during the three-and-a-half years they spent taking inventory of the Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Collection.

Sorting through 522 boxes of documents, photos and memorabilia the late speaker of the House of Representatives had donated to his alma mater in 1987, Weisse and crew turned up notes of presidential meetings, transcripts of O'Neill's colorful daily press conferences, gavels, political cartoons and buttons, and decades' worth of legislative correspondence - even the partly smoked remnants of at least one of the North Cambridge Democrat's beloved cigars.

There were also six whips, presented as mementos to O'Neill when he was house majority whip in the early 1970s, recalled Weisse recently. "One summer I took some students outside and we practiced cracking them," she said, pulling a six-foot-long bullwhip from a box.

Last month, Burns released a glossy 52-page catalogue that gives an overview of the voluminous O'Neill collection. Boston College marked the publication of the guide with a Sept. 29 seminar in Gasson Hall on American politics during 1936-86, the period that O'Neill served in elected office. Guest speakers at event were San Francisco Examiner Washington Bureau Chief Christopher Matthews, a former top aide to O'Neill; Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Professor of American Politics R. Shep Melnick; and Assoc. Prof. John Tierney (Political Science).

Burns Library Archivist Leah Weisse with some of the gavels and whips that were given to the late speaker of the House and are included in the O'Neill Collection.

A 1936 graduate, O'Neill was devoted to his alma mater, where the main library, a chair in politics, and a scholarship program today bear his name. His donated papers form the core of the Burns Library Congressional Archive, filling more than 675 linear feet of shelf space, and including more than 7,500 photographs and 675 artifacts. Weisse was hired in 1992 through a grant to organize the materials, which she said was no small task.

"It was a treasure hunt in some ways, frustrating in others," she said. "His filing system was such that you could have newspaper clippings mixed in with letters to the president. We had to go through all the folders, piece by piece, item by item."

What they found, Weiss said, was a mixture of trivia and history. Perhaps 20 ceremonial city keys are included in the collection, in addition to assorted campaign pins O'Neill collected at speaking appearances he made for Democratic candidates across the nation. Other items are valuable for the perspective they offer on the inner workings of government, such as notes of party leadership meetings held during the Carter presidency, and materials on Northern Ireland sent to him by the Irish and British embassies to ensure that he "got both sides" of the Ulster debate, Weisse said.

There also are many memos and pieces of correspondence from the Reagan era, when O'Neill was the outspoken voice of the Democratic opposition. The materials from the Reagan years reflect the unique relationship between the liberal O'Neill and the conservative Republican president, which Weisse described as "adversarial, yet on a personal level, a friendship."

"The president and I have a fine relationship," O'Neill is quoted as saying in a transcript of a 1986 press conference. "It is not my role to acquiesce to the president on everything he says. It is my job to speak up, and I do every time we meet."

The O'Neill papers, said Weisse, "are as close as you're going to get to viewing the backroom politics of the '70s and '80s."

Weisse, who confesses to having no great personal interest in politics, said she met O'Neill only once, when the former speaker visited BC in 1993 for a luncheon with O'Neill Scholarship students. But after years of sorting through his old mail, newspaper clippings and photographs, Weisse almost regards O'Neill as an acquaintance.

"You kind of feel you get to know a person after working on his papers," Weisse said. "I find him an intriguing character."

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