Kevin Cullen

Politician and human

Email|Print| Text size + By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / December 20, 2007

It was a neighborhood meeting, it was just about to start, and when a woman with shapely legs walked by the podium, Councilor Dapper O'Neil remarked in a loud stage whisper, "Nice pins."

The woman turned on her heel, walked back, and unsmilingly introduced herself to Dapper as a nun from a nearby convent.

Later, when I asked him about it, Dapper got defensive and said it wasn't his fault.

"How was I supposed to know?" he protested. "None of 'em wear their [expletive] habits anymore."

Modernity was the bane of Albert Leo "Dapper" O'Neil. It drove him crazy. He spent his life pining for the good old days, as if they would magically return if he kept talking about them.

Now that he is dead, much will be said about Dapper O'Neil. He will be remembered as a throwback, a bigot, a larger-than-life character, a sexist, a champion of the little guy. He was all those things. But mostly he was a politician caught between two eras.

He came to public life when Boston was mostly white and Irish, when speaking with profane candor was a mark of political acumen. He hung on and even prospered as the ethnic and racial mix changed, when decorum and sensitivity toward newcomers became the new political currency. Dapper never got a handle on the exchange rate.

He didn't adapt because he didn't have to.

He remained a hero to disaffected whites who blamed social do-gooding liberals and minorities for their problems. But no matter how much Dapper talked about the old Boston, he couldn't stop the evolution of the new one.

Some compared him to Archie Bunker, the character in the old TV sitcom "All in the Family," a comparison Dapper did not reject.

Archie Bunker was a lovable bigot, a guy who said terrible things but had a good heart, a guy who responded to the dramatic changes around him by constantly talking about the past. As the theme song put it, "Those were the days."

Dapper could say hateful, hurtful things about groups of people, and without a trace of irony he would drop everything to help individuals from those same groups.

A contradiction? You bet. But in Dapper's world, it wasn't hypocrisy. It was politics.

Years ago, we were sitting in his office, and I asked Dapper which of his fellow councilors he most respected. He didn't hesitate, naming the late Tony Crayton, who was black, and David Scondras, who is openly gay and whom Dapper publicly mocked with homophobic barbs.

"David's not a phony, and he works hard," Dapper said. "I like Tony because he works hard for his people. He's a good kid."

One day, I found Dapper sitting with a Haitian guy in City Hall. Dapper was helping the guy through the maze of the Zoning Board of Appeal. The guy could barely speak English and started to apologize for it when Dapper stopped him.

"Don't worry," Dapper said, slipping an arm around his shoulder. "We'll do this together."

It was so at odds with the portrait of a politician who sometimes appealed to people's worst instincts, but it was part of the big, complex picture of an old-school pol.

Dapper used to say they didn't count his votes, they weighed them. In 1993, six years before he was voted out of office, he finished second in the at-large City Council race, the first time he hadn't topped the ticket in a decade, and it crushed him. It was around midnight when people who had gathered in his office began to leave. That Haitian guy was there. So was a gay man who said Dapper had helped him after a bunch of homophobic punks beat him up.

On the way out, Dapper paused at the door. He looked up at one of the walls, where a portrait of his mentor, James Michael Curley, smiled down.

Dapper O'Neil smiled back, turned off the light, and shut the door.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at

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