Edie Shapira on Paul O’Neill’s “unforgettable leadership” on the North Shore

By April 29, 2020 April 30th, 2020 Blog

By Dr. Edith Shapira
Original Riverlife Task Force member and past co-chair of the Riverlife board

Paul O’Neill and John Craig were the founding co-chairs of the Riverlife Task Force, assembled in 1999 to implement a community plan to reinvigorate Pittsburgh’s riverfronts. They were an odd couple and a highly complementary duo.

Paul was polished and brilliant and fearless, yet kind and down-to-earth, as well. He conveyed a profound seriousness of purpose, yet also a sense of joy and hope. Many of us were starstruck in his presence. The breadth and depth of his government and corporate leadership were extraordinary.

John Craig, who passed away in 2010, was a tough, relentless, brilliant, newspaperman. He, too, had a heart of gold. They both loved their adopted city of Pittsburgh. Between the two of them, mountains were moved, and the city was changed.

Paul O’Neill and John Craig, co-founders of Riverlife. Images by Heather Mull for Riverlife.

The inaugural meeting of the task force was hosted in 1999 by Paul at the then brand-new Alcoa Building on the North Shore. We sat, as a group, looking at the breathtaking view, and listening as he described how he had realized his powerful vision to connect his headquarters to the rivers. He had embraced the river with glass and open workspaces, trails and green building concepts, and strikingly beautiful design. It was clear that he had enjoyed an intimate role in the building’s design. The Alcoa headquarters provided a beacon to the task force and the region for embracing and celebrating the rivers, rather than turning our backs on them.

His leadership style was unforgettable.

He began all meetings by asking whether everyone in the room knew where the nearest fire escapes were (consistent with his extraordinary history of respecting worker safety at Alcoa.)

He had big, aspirational goals, and demonstrated confidence that barriers – whether physical (like bridges and rail lines) or financial (like the need to secure public capital) could be removed or overcome.

Paul O’Neill, right, listens to keynote speaker David McCullough on the 1999 boat ride that launched Riverlife Task Force.

He treated everyone with respect, always, and made it crystal clear that his moral compass was unshakable.

On one occasion he walked out during an important executive committee, saying he had to get to the dry cleaners before it closed. When asked if he could stay, and ask an assistant to help with that, he replied that he didn’t feel comfortable asking his assistant to do this when he should do it, himself.

His national and global credibility lent gravitas to the scale of the public vision for Pittsburgh’s riverfronts, and engaging in the work of Riverlife with him felt inspiring and empowering. And humbling. Always with a touch of being starstruck.

His passing represents a profound loss for this region, which will be forever changed, for the better, by his work and his love of Pittsburgh.

For additional remembrances of Riverlife co-founder Paul O’Neill, please check out the video interview we conducted with Paul in 2013, and read the tribute by the Post-Gazette’s Brian O’Neill.

Top photo of the Alcoa Building by iStockPhoto Images. Portrait of Edith Shapira by Heather Mull for Riverlife.

Riverlife provides leadership for Pittsburgh riverfront development and a voice for public access, high-quality design, and environmental restoration.

Your support allows Riverlife to continue our work on these projects and others that create or connect to Pittsburgh’s downtown riverfront park system. Be a part of the before-and-after riverfront transformation. Please support Riverlife today with your donation.