Former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill dead at 84
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Paul O'Neill, a former U.S. Treasury Secretary and Alcoa chief executive whose independence and blunt speaking style led to clashes with President George W. Bush, died early Saturday at his home in Pittsburgh.
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He was 84 and had been under treatment for lung cancer. His death was unrelated to the novel coronavirus, his family said.
Mr. O'Neill's unlikely career path took him from bored undergraduate at Fresno State College to Alaskan highway surveyor, federal bureaucrat, chief executive of the world's largest aluminum company and U.S. Treasury secretary.
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His quirky style served him well as the CEO of Aluminum Co. of America, or Alcoa, where he oversaw huge increases in profits and improvements in safety standards. Those traits worked less well when he was Treasury secretary during Mr. Bush's first term in 2001 and 2002. After a rocky 23 months, President Bush fired him in December 2002. His apparent offense: straying from the president's tax-cutting message.
As a CEO, he preferred to talk about worker safety rather than earnings goals and gave up his office to work from a standard cubicle. As Treasury secretary, he wanted to make tax cuts conditional on targets for limiting federal debt. He also wanted more aggressive measures to counter global warming. Those positions put him at odds with Mr. Bush and some of his closest political advisers.
Mr. O'Neill loved to delve into the minutiae of policy initiatives and hash out the pros and cons with people of all political stripes. A lifelong pragmatist, he loathed ideologies. He was confident he could figure out a better way to manage almost anything — and appalled that others didn't always heed his advice.
He once described Wall Street traders as "people who sit in front of a flickering giant screen" and speculate on markets. "I don't know how to do that," he said, but "I probably could learn in about a couple of weeks."
Paul Henry O'Neill was born Dec. 4, 1935, in St. Louis. His father, who had a career in the U.S. Army, used the name John P. O'Neill and told the family he was born in Scotland and had lost track of his family. Long after his father's death, research by Paul O'Neill unearthed startling news: His father was born Piet Kalfsterman and grew up in the Netherlands before emigrating to the U.S. via Canada. Mr. O'Neill didn't know why his father had misled the family about his origins.
As his father's Army career shifted him around the country, the family lived in Illinois, Hawaii, New Mexico and Alaska. Paul's teenage jobs included delivering newspapers and working as a convenience-store clerk.
After graduating from high school in Anchorage, Alaska, he chose Fresno State because he had relatives living nearby. Uninspired by his early studies there, he dropped out to work in Alaska, first doing survey work on a highway-construction crew and later supervising construction of communications towers for a military network. During this break from college, he married Nancy Jo Wolfe, whom he had met in high school.
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He returned to Fresno State and in 1960 received a bachelor's degree in economics before starting work on a doctoral degree at Claremont Graduate University. At the suggestion of a classmate, he took an examination for people seeking federal government internships. He aced the test and in 1961 went to work for the Veterans Administration in Washington, where he became a computer expert responsible for setting up systems to help manage the agency.
After taking a year to earn a master's degree in public administration at Indiana University, he moved in 1967 to the Bureau of the Budget, later the Office of Management and Budget, or OMB. His early assignments there included analyzing the costs and benefits of federal health-care programs. He rose to deputy director of the OMB under President Gerald Ford.
At the end of the Ford administration in January 1977, he was eager to increase his income to pay for the education of his four children. He didn't want to become a lobbyist, or "bloodsucker of the government," as he put it in a December 2018 interview for this obituary. After reviewing offers from think tanks and consulting firms, he joined International Paper Co. as vice president of strategic planning in 1977.
When he arrived at the New York-based forestry-products giant, he found the planning documents were "utter garbage" and set about beefing them up, partly with data on competitors gleaned from obscure government filings.