It takes a lot of chutzpah to call yourself Editor King of the New Millennium when you work at The Globe and Mail. Greg O'Neill had chutzpah. In spades. He also had 44 years of service under his belt, one of the longest-serving employees in the building, and he'd earned the right.
We meet thousands of people in an average lifetime. We hang on to relatively few of them – our families, our friends, our colleagues. And on very rare occasions, we meet people who are so memorable, we not only rope them into our inner circle, we are often asked by others: "Who the heck was that guy?"
Greg was one of those guys. When you met him, you never forgot him. If he were reading this he'd say, in his distinctive, raspy voice, "You got that right, Sean boy!" I heard echoes of him in my head as I was writing this ("Don't screw it up!"). His wit ("Columnists are Lolas, because whatever Lola wants, Lola gets"). His taunts ("That's a nice tie, but look at this, this is a real man's tie!"). His stories ("The priest told me to cut my hair if I still wanted to be an altar boy, so I pointed to a crucifix and said, 'What about him?' "). Then he'd laugh. A hearty guffaw. Unforgettable.
Greg O'Neill grew up in Toronto, the third child in a large Irish family, with his parents Thomas and Miriam, and siblings Thomas, Emmett, Connie and Chris. He was a formidable chess player, an early indication of the keen intellect he put to good use throughout his life and career. "Greg was brilliant," Emmett says. "I once studied for six hours for the same exam in high school, while he went to a festival with our friends." You can guess who got the higher grade.
He liked his drink. He liked his cigarettes (until his first battle with cancer ended the habit, about 15 years ago). He particularly liked his long hair and he rocked his urban cowboy look until the end. If he strikes you as a bit of a wild man, you'd be right. But Greg was no slacker. He used his persona as a weapon, disarming with words anyone who failed to take him seriously.
Greg graduated in 1977, from St. Michael's College at the University of Toronto, with a major in economics and a minor in philosophy, five years after he started working at his beloved Globe and Mail. In 1978, he joined Report on Business as a copy editor, determined to be the best in a section he considered world class. Over the course of his career, Greg ran the copy desk like a five-star general. He was ruthless. He demanded perfection. He hated laziness and any failure to follow The Globe's style guide. He had no time for weak headline writing. He loved to say, "Fear is a great motivator."
He mentored countless young editors, many of whom still work in the industry, all of whom would credit him for launching their careers. He would have eaten a journalism-school instructor for breakfast.
Greg loved his job. He loved handing out candy at the office on Thursdays and running a business that supplied pop to employees, funnelling annual profits to Toronto women's shelter Interval House. He loved going to New Orleans and celebrating Mardi Gras. He loved the Toronto bar Scallywags, where he had his own drink, available only to him.
But there were two things in the world he loved more than anything else: his wife Leatrice and his daughter Sarah. Leatrice was his soulmate, and the sun rose and set on Sarah's head, he was so proud of her. To Sarah, Greg was the coolest man alive and her eulogy at his funeral brought the room to tears. Leatrice would say Greg balanced her out, kept her grounded. He considered himself an honorary Jew by marriage, slinging Yiddishisms like a seasoned pro and leading a Passover seder at his home every year.
The loss to his family is beyond words.
"Greg always had time for honest folk, and he himself was as honest a man as I've ever met," a friend wrote on my Facebook timeline.
"And that laugh."
Sean Stanleigh is an editor at The Globe and Mail. Greg O'Neill was his first boss and mentor, and they remained friends even after Sean became, in Greg's words, an MP or "management puke."