Bill O’Neill inspires student culinary achievement

The Newtonite

[media-credit name=”Leah Budson” align=”alignright” width=”200″]“My students’ success has always been the measure of my success,” said culinary arts teacher Bill O’Neill.[/media-credit]

“My students’ success has always been the measure of my success,” said culinary arts teacher Bill O’Neill.

by Alex Feit
When he first arrived at this school in 1977 as part of the then technical and vocational education department, culinary arts teacher Bill O’Neill said he was scared, lost in the halls and stairwells that commonly proved difficult for many newcomers to the old building.
Now, after 36 years of teaching culinary arts and worked at the Tiger’s Loft Bistro, O’Neill is ending his career as an institution at this school, one that has proved inspirational to hundreds of students that have been through his culinary program.
O’Neill was born in East Hartford, Conn., although shortly after, he moved to Quincy. When he was 12 years old, O’Neill moved to Woburn and attended school there, he said.
Around this time, O’Neill’s grandfather, a woodworking teacher, and his father, an art teacher, helped inspire him to become a culinary teacher, he said.
“They both brought me into classes at different times, and I remember how kids reacted with them and I saw how much fun they had teaching and learning with them at the same time in a vocational type situation,” O’Neill said.
“In high school, I just knew that I wanted to do culinary and teach it,” he added.
Although O’Neill was interested in learning culinary arts, his teachers would not let him into the foods lab “even though all I wanted to do was cook,” O’Neill said.
“At that time it wasn’t open to boys,” he said.
After graduating from high school in 1971, O’Neill attended Essex Technical Institute in Danvers to study culinary arts, later earning a bachelor’s degree at Framingham State, he said.
Later, O’Neill earned his Chapter 74 certification at UMass Boston, allowing him to become a vocational teacher in Massachusetts.
In 1976, O’Neill began teaching home economics at Arlington until being recruited to this school by Dan Malia, the then director of the technical and vocational education department, and Carolyn Woodbury, the then department head of home economics.
The following year, while teaching home economics, food and nutrition classes, O’Neill and Robert Chalmers, the then head of the special education department, applied for a $5,000 grant from the Department of Education to start a culinary program at this school.
The department approved the grant in September 1978, and the two used the money to purchase kitchen equipment for a room on the fourth floor of the old building.
Several months later, Feb. 2, 1979, O’Neill began teaching the student-run Tiger’s Loft Bistro, he said.
Teaching his students and watching them learn new skills has always been what has fueled O’Neill as a teacher, he said.
“When I’ve taught something to a student and I see them applying their learning to help another student, I take pride in that,” O’Neill said.
“My students’ success has always been the measure of my success.”
When the Tiger’s Loft Bistro was shut down for a short period of time earlier this year, O’Neill was devastated because students’ spirit was down, he said.
Regardless, a “typical day of teaching and learning,” is what has inspired O’Neill to come to this school each morning, he said.
Some students and colleagues have also taken note of O’Neill’s dedication to the culinary program.
“We’re losing an icon—someone who has been part of this institution. You would not know that this man is getting ready to leave at all,” said Lisa McKinney ’81, a co-teacher of culinary arts and a former student of O’Neill’s.
When organizing for a surprise retirement party for O’Neill, McKinney said that there were people attending that were “calling me back, sharing different stories, tidbits from their lives about him, even wanting to bring spouses and kids and feeling like they were coming home.
“When students talk about his impact, it is profound, even from those who had him in his first class in 1977,” she said.
Culinary arts teaching assistant Lisa Marzilli said that O’Neill “really enjoys what he does, and it shows in his work everyday.”
“The school will be losing a great teacher who strives everyday to be a great teacher. It will be a great loss, and it’s going to be hard to replace him,” she said.
Senior Ben Conescu notes how O’Neill relates to his students by being a reality television show snob.
“He loves his reality television shows. He always comes in fist pumping the day after Jersey Shore is on. It’s how he keeps his youth,” Conescu said.
Many of O’Neill’s students have also moved on to becoming successful in the foodservice industry, becoming restauranteurs and culinary arts teachers as well, O’Neill said.
For example, O’Neill’s former student, Evan Deluty, ’87, a successful restaurant owner in Boston was recently named the “Sausage King of Boston” for his cooking in a competition, he said.
In retirement, O’Neill plans to spend more time with his five grandchildren because he sometimes feels that he has spent too much time with his students and not enough with his own family, he said.
He also plans to work on landscaping and gardening, as well as going to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire frequently.
Yet if he had to take his job at this school again, O’Neill said that he would do it “in a heartbeat.”
“I’ll miss everything about this school,” he said.
“I’ll miss the people who I work with, the students first and foremost, the camaraderie. It’s a great place,” O’Neill said. “I’ll miss it all.”