Dapper O’Neil was a man of his time

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Today would have been the 100th birthday of Albert Leo “Dapper” O’Neil, the legendary Boston city councilor.

Sometimes I wonder how the Dap would be reacting to this current emergency — not well, I daresay. Closing all the barrooms would have bothered him more than somewhat, shuttering gun ranges even more so.

The Dap came out of Roxbury, and he fought in Gen. Patton’s Third Army in World War II. After V-J Day, he used his GI Bill benefits to pay tuition at Staley’s School of the Spoken Word on Bay State Road.

It was basically a trade school for future Boston pols, where generations of wannabe statesmen, including JFK and future Gov. Maurice Tobin, were instructed by Dr. Delbert Moyer Staley on how to enunciate, not talk out of the side of their mouths and even how to walk like a fine Beacon Hill gentleman.

Dapper studied hard, while working behind the tap at Meldrum’s at the corner of Dudley and East Cottage Streets in Roxbury. He served Green River (“the whiskey without a headache”) and Pickwick Ale.

He first ran for political office against an entrenched state rep who later went to jail in a shakedown at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Dapper’s campaign literature included a photo of himself with his political hero, James Michael Curley.

He lost that race, and several others, before running for mayor in 1967, when hippies were starting to hang out on the Boston Common. Dapper would drive down Tremont Street in a rented Winnebago equipped with a loudspeaker. He’d pull over, stand up and start hurling bars of soap at the stoned hippies.

“When I’m elected mayor,” he’d bellow through the loudspeaker, “all of you bums are getting a haircut, a bath and a good shave!”

He finished fifth, but his profile was rising, and he finally made it onto the Council in 1971.

He was always described as a Last Hurrah kind of pol, but oddly, he never won a race until television became the dominant medium. That training from Dr. Staley finally paid off in all those 15-second sound bites he delivered nightly on the evening news. His elocution was perfect, his comic timing and delivery flawless.

He drove a black Chevy Impala mounted with a spotlight, like he was a cop. The vanity license plate: AONEIL. The bumper sticker: “Liberals: An American Cancer.” Every morning he pored over the obituaries — the Irish sports pages — and every night he made the rounds of the wakes.

The more voters in the family, the more likely the departed was to receive a visit from Dapper.

He had the same girlfriend for 56 years — “my Helen” — but he never married. Like his hero Curley, he never opened a checking account, nor did he own any real estate. He lived with his widowed sister Gert on the third floor of a three-decker in Roslindale.

He smoked Kools and never left home without his .38-caliber revolver. It came in handy, like one night when he and a friend were leaving Amrheins in South Boston. A just-released ex-con confronted them at knifepoint and mugged them.

As the thug — his name was Linberger — fled down an alley off West Broadway, the Dap pulled out the equalizer and drilled him.  It wasn’t a life-threatening wound, but in the ambulance, Linberger asked the EMT: “Why’d he shoot me? All I wanted was his money.”

Even though he was a Democrat, Dapper loved Ronald Reagan. In 1980 he campaigned with Dutch down in Bristol County and even met Nancy Reagan. (“Not a bad tush for an old broad,” was Dapper’s verdict.)

President Reagan nominated Dapper for U.S. marshal in Boston — a dream job if ever there was one. But there was a problem — the background check. All the high hats and goo-goos that the Dap had crossed over the years dimed him out.

Afterwards he filed a FOIA to find out who’d croaked him, but all the names in the feds’ report were redacted — all but one, Linberger’s. From his prison cell, Linberger had told the G-men that the Dap was insane.

“That bastard,” Dapper thundered. “Next time he’s up for parole, I’m gonna be at his hearing.”

I wrote it up for the paper, and the next morning, we were sitting in his office in City Hall when his secretary walked in.

“Dapper,” she said. “It’s Linberger on the phone from jail. He’s asking to speak to you.”

The Dap’s lip curled. “Tell that bearded little weasel I don’t take collect calls from jailbirds!”

Dapper was elected to the Council 14 times — “they won’t be counting my votes,” he used to say, “they’ll be weighin’ ‘em!”

But times change. Dapper got sick, he lost 50 pounds. In 1999, his final race, he still wanted to do standouts at the rotaries, but he was in a wheelchair, a blanket over his legs. It was not a good look.

On election day 1999, he finished fifth — out of the money. After the polls closed, he was sitting in his office, inconsolable. I was there, with Mayor Menino and City Council President Jimmy Kelly. What could any of us say to our pal? A single tear rolled down Dapper’s cheek.

“What am I going to tell my Helen?” he said.

“Dapper,” Jimmy Kelly told him. “You’re still the best. You never changed, the city changed.”

The Dap died in a nursing home in West Roxbury in 2007. I’m not saying it was a better Boston back then, but it certainly did take itself a lot less seriously.

Happy 100th Dapper. I still miss you, and I know I’m not the only one.

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