Library DrawingThe CONNector

APRIL 2001Volume 3 Number 2

Dear Governor O'Neill

By Barbara Austen, Project Archivist

Governor O'Neill with Noella Chhom Prom, Southern New England Pre-Teen
Governor O'Neill with Noella Chhom Prom, Southern New England Pre-Teen

"Dear Governor O'Neill." That is how most of the letters begin. Then follows an appeal for help, an expression of frustration with state bureaucracy, an opinion or a suggestion on how the "state" could do things more effectively, a request for information from the Federal government. These are a few examples of the types of correspondence found in the records of former Governor William A. O'Neill.

By statute, all governors' records are transferred to the State Archives at the Connecticut State Library. O'Neill's staff transferred files annually, resulting in the same subject files (such as "Environment" or "Transportation") appearing ten times, one in each year of his administration. To make research easier, State Library staff have gathered together those subject files and arranged them chronologically.

Project Archivist Barbara Austen and Archival Assistant Edward Gutierrez have spent the last year processing O'Neill's records. Their work is part of a joint project between Central Connecticut State University's Center for the Study of Practical Politics and Public Policy and the Connecticut State Library. The next step is to prepare the materials for microfilming so copies of the film can be deposited at Central Connecticut State University and at other state records depositories.

Lieutenant Governor William Atchison O'Neill of East Hampton assumed the office of Governor on December 31, 1980, upon the resignation of an ailing Ella Grasso. For two years O'Neill maintained the status quo, simply trying to fill out Grasso's term. When he was elected in his own right in 1982, and again in 1986, he felt free to formulate new policies and initiatives.

Governor O'Neill oversaw the reorganization of the Higher Education system and the Veterans Home and Hospital. He maintained social programs in the wake of massive federal budget cuts. He formulated an extensive infrastructure renewal program to rebuild state roads and bridges. He proposed legislation that raised teacher salaries and standards. He instituted programs to aid the elderly, people with disabilities and mental retardation. He earned a reputation as a "regular guy," an honest and honorable man who listened to his constituents. This reputation is still true today.

Constituent letters form the bulk of the Governor's records. A third grade class from West Hartford appealed to the Governor in March 1987 when they were denied a tour of the Capitol (policy dictated that fourth grade students and above could receive tours). Katharine Rasmus wrote, "I was wondering why third graders can't go to the capitol? Is it because you think we are going to ran (sic) around and touck (sic) things? All we want to learn new things." Aaron Kimble made his case this way: "I think all 3rd graders should be abell [sic] to go to the State Capital [sic]. If you ask me, I think 4th graders are wild and crazy. And you wouldn't know but they are really mean to 3rd graders." Governor O'Neill forwarded these and 18 other letters to the Joint Committee on Legislative Management. Today third graders are permitted to tour the Capitol but only when the legislature is not in session.

"I was angry myself reading these parents' letters, until I read a statement by Carl Ajello, Connecticut's Attorney General"
Governor William O'Neill

On a more serious note were letters from parents of mentally retarded citizens who abhorred the amicus brief the state filed in the U. S. Supreme Court case of Youngberg v. Romeo. The case considered the question whether the respondent (Romeo), who had been involuntarily confined to a Pennsylvania institution for persons with mental retardation, had a constitutional right to "decent care, reasonable protection from harm, freedom from prolonged and unnecessary custodial shackling, and minimally adequate habilitation."

The amici curiae brief submitted by Connecticut and other states argued that an appeals court erred in ruling that Romeo had a constitutional right to "adequate" treatment. The reason the state took its position was to force the courts, and the US Congress, to clearly codify the care every state had to give to persons with mental retardation.

The constituent letters are supplemented with reports from commissioners; records kept by O'Neill's legal counsel and special assistant, who often correspond directly with issues raised in the letters; and press office materials, and campaign memorabilia. His speech files also tie in with the letters, and with well over 1,000 photographs. Names and faces have been matched, with the help of many people outside the library, including diverse organizations such as the Red Cross, the Cystic Fibrosis Association, the Sons of Norway; churches such as St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Hartford; state departments including Environmental Protection and the Commissioners of Higher Education, and members of an Irish Pipe Band.

There is a striking similarity between issues from 20 years ago and current concerns. Governor O'Neill had to address traffic congestion, emissions testing, disposal of solid waste, high taxes, the need for an income tax, prescription drug costs, Lyme disease, alcohol and drug abuse, and overcrowded jails. The challenges of governing this state do not change. Letters sent to O'Neill along with a selection of photographs will be on display in the Museum of Connecticut History from March 1 to June 30 in an exhibition entitled "Who Writes to the Governor?" It is a tantalizing glimpse of a "man of the people".

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