Rory O'Neil, Riverfront Recapture Co-Founder, Dies At 81
By JULIE STAGIS
July 30, 2012
The co-founder of Riverfront Recapture, the 31-year-old nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring Hartford's access to the Connecticut River, died Saturday in Greenwich. He was 81.
C. Roderick "Rory" O'Neil moved to Hartford after being hired as an executive at the Travelers in 1977. Realtors tried to show Rory and Nancy O'Neil homes in West Hartford, but they wanted to live in the city.
The O'Neils bought a home on Capitol Avenue and became active in the city's revitalization.
O'Neil was involved in Hartford in many ways – he served on numerous boards and was a past director and chairman of the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation — but his family said his role in Riverfront Recapture was his "proudest achievement," according to his obituary.
O'Neil "really deserves credit for [being] the spark" behind Riverfront Recapture, said Joe Marfuggi, the organization's CEO and president.
As the story goes, O'Neil would look out on the river from his office in Travelers Tower, wondering why Hartford's people couldn't reach the waterfront from the ground. The construction of flood-controlling dikes in the 1940s and highways in the 1950s and 1960s had cut off access to the river.
"Rory was the one who kind of mobilized support" for an initiative to invigorate the riverfront, Marfuggi said. "He was the one who said, 'Why aren't we using this amazing natural resource?'"
O'Neil, lawyer Jack Riege and others founded Riverfront Recapture in 1981, and O'Neil was chairman of the board from 1982 until 1998. He remained on the board until his death.
"He's been very, very much involved in what's happened here," Marfuggi said. Today, the organization, in partnership with the Metropolitan District Commission, oversees four riverfront parks in Hartford and East Hartford, running several programs and events, maintaining boat launches and other facilities and otherwise managing the public parks.
A major accomplishment was getting the state Department of Transportation to include restored riverfront access in its plans to reconstruct I-91 in the 1980s. Moving I-91 allowed for the construction of Riverfront Plaza, which was opened in 1999 and connects downtown Hartford to the river.
"If you had asked [O'Neil], I think he would say that was a key accomplishment," Marfuggi said. "It was huge."
While the organization's successes are owed to a number of people, Marfuggi said, "you always need somebody to get things moving, and [O'Neil] was that person. It takes somebody to stand up and say, 'We can do this.'"
As chairman, O'Neil "was very warm and supportive … very inspirational," Marfuggi said.
At the time of his death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, O'Neil was living in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. But the O'Neils "truly enjoyed their time in Hartford," his son, John O'Neil, said. "He really enjoyed being in a small city where you could really get to know all the players and see so many people from different walks of life crossing paths."
John O'Neil said his father enjoyed "seeing people trying to make something of a city that's had some hard times."
O'Neil is survived by his wife, six children, 13 grandchildren and two brothers. A memorial service will be held for O'Neil on Wednesday, Aug. 1, at Bedford Historical Hall, 608 Old Post Road, Bedford, N.Y.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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