Beverly O'Neill headshot

Beverly O’Neill

Former Mayor, Long Beach, California

Upon graduating from California State University, Beverly O’Neill studied abroad with her husband, Bill O’Neill, who was working on his Ph.D. For the young newlyweds, their first trip outside of the U.S. – to post-WWII Allied-occupied Vienna – was eye-opening and expanded their worldview immensely. After a 31-year career at Long Beach City College, Beverly went on to become the only three-term, city-wide elected mayor of Long Beach, California from 1994-2006, leading the city successfully through economically turbulent times created by the closing of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in 1997. In our interview, Beverly fondly remembers her year-long experience in Vienna, including a short hospital stay where her brightly colored bathrobe made quite an impression.

IES Abroad: How did you choose to live and study in Vienna?  

Beverly O’Neill: My husband, Bill, had returned from the Korean War and was working on his doctorate at the University of Southern California. At that time, one of the requirements was that you had to know a foreign language well enough to speak, read, and write it. We chose Vienna and were able to attend through the GI Bill.

IES Abroad: What are the special memories you hold from that time? 

BO: Bill and I were both from Long Beach, California, and had never seen a coal stove before. Our house Frau in Vienna thought we were so dumb. Also, our shoes were not nearly heavy nor warm enough. But through it all, it was the most marvelous experience, and it solidified our marriage. We had only been married about two years, and it was the first time either one of us had left the U.S. My family questioned why we were even doing this, but it expanded our world and opened our eyes together. Every school vacation, we traveled together. We explored Greece, France, and England. Once back in California, Bill got his Ph.D. and he was a professor at the University of Southern California for 32 years. He was recognized as having had the most outstanding dissertation that year among his peers.

IES Abroad: What do you remember about Vienna in the mid-1950s?  

BO: It wasn’t too long after the war, and Vienna was still very poor. We lived out in the 19th district near Grinzing, the grape growing region. The place where our group met to eat was nearby, and we walked to it. But we took the trolley down to our classes located in the Ring. At that time, Vienna was occupied by four different countries – France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the U.S. Every month, it changed to a different country with oversight. So, every month there was a changing of the guard and the flags and bands playing by the outgoing country and the incoming one. When the Soviets were in control and the Americans were coming in, the Soviets often played very strong, pompous music as they left. When the Americans came in, they played a much lighter, jazzy piece. The difference between the two was striking. The center of the city was open to everyone; however, we were barred from going into districts occupied by Great Britain, the French, and the Russians. We stayed in the U.S.-controlled area.

IES Abroad: What were some of the challenges you faced?

BO: Neither Bill nor I had studied German before arriving in Austria. Living outside of the Ring, very few people spoke English there, and so that made it difficult for us in the beginning as we were learning German. I learned the basics for being able to shop and get around very quickly. Thankfully, most people were very patient with me! At one point during the year, I was hospitalized for three nights. It wasn’t anything serious, but what I remember is that everyone was fascinated with the bathrobe I wore. It was brightly colored and no one had seen one like that. They all wanted to model it!

IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad change the way you think? 

BO: For me, the art history and appreciation classes I took were eye opening. I remember distinctly one incident while examining a large work of art at one of the museums in Vienna with my class. One of our fellow classmates commented to the professor that he thought the painting was too dark. I thought the professor was going to faint. He was clearly shocked that a student would say that out loud. I realized in that moment that we Americans came across as boorish, coarse, and plain rude. The professor definitely did not appreciate that kind of openness while examining a masterpiece. I also remember a lot about one of our professors, Dr. Wächtler. He lived with his mother and from time to time we would bring them a piece of Sachertorte and visit with her. A prior IES Abroad student from Texas had sent Dr. Wächtler a live Texas Horned Toad (lizard). He kept it in a glass enclosure, and because it was nocturnal, he turned on a small light bulb at night for it. This was special since electricity was very expensive. Our time abroad gave me a broader background and appreciation for the different cultures of the countries we lived in and visited. Overall, the scope of the world came alive for Bill and me. Without the kind of media presence we all now take for granted, our world previously was limited to the town Bill and I grew up in. The vision of the world and the knowledge we gained studying and living abroad impacted us enormously. So much has changed in 60 years!

IES Abroad: In what ways did study abroad impact your career path upon returning to the U.S.?

BO: I had a much better understanding of the world – people have the same needs.

IES Abroad: After a 31-year career at Long Beach City College, what prompted you to run for mayor of Long Beach, California?

BO: I was born in Long Beach and had an opportunity to lead us through many positive changes.

IES Abroad: What are you most proud of from your time as mayor?

BO: Transferring Long Beach from a Navy town to a town with a glowing future with pride.