Thundering down I-5 on a Harley might seem incompatible with receiving the Mother Teresa Award for social justice, but this kind of fearlessness has led Dan O’Neill, ’72, to dive into disaster and help people in conflict or crisis. O’Neill, who received the award in 2006, is the co-founder of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization that has helped more than 170 million people in more than 40 countries since 1979. Over 90 percent of the field staff are citizens of the countries where they work. In this way, the organization leverages local insights to help people recover from calamity and build better lives. Most recently, after the earthquake in Nepal, Mercy Corps’ local staff identified roads that weren’t on any maps, leading to villages that hadn’t yet received lifesaving aid.
Born in Olympia in 1948, O’Neill grew up in the small community of Shelton, where his dad worked for Simpson Timber. During the summers, after finishing an eight-hour shift at a gas station, O’Neill worked swing or night shift at the sawmill, pulling lumber off of green chains and listening to the shrieks of the giant band saws. At the UW, O’Neill majored in fine art. He studied graphics, photography, painting and printmaking, and occasionally carried out guerilla projects. Once, in the middle of the night, he dug up some of the lawn outside Terry Hall and installed a glass sculpture—which he quickly dismantled the next day at the behest of a Seattle police officer. O’Neill also constructed a floating pontoon of Styrofoam with a noise-making battery-powered pendulum for another art project, which he dropped into Drumheller Fountain.
After graduating, he traveled to Africa, Europe and the Middle East, eventually landing on a kibbutz in Israel, where he worked in the orchards and studied Hebrew. O’Neill experienced firsthand the 1973 Yom Kippur War. That, and a decision to join the Roman Catholic Church, altered O’Neill’s life forever. Drawing on the social justice teachings of the church and personal faith, he started Save the Refugees Fund in 1979 to help those fleeing the killing fields of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. That effort morphed into Mercy Corps, where O’Neill still puts in a full day’s work, mostly in resource development and communications. “He was really unique in doing what it takes to move from a guy with a phone in a room to an organization that dispenses hundreds of millions of dollars in aid every year,” says Margaret Larson, a veteran Seattle broadcast journalist who has volunteered with and worked for Mercy Corps.
O’Neill has also returned to his UW roots. He lectures at the Jackson School of International Studies and he is working with students on a special real-world project. “So the connection to the UW is coming back full circle, like the T.S. Eliot quote about completing the journey is arriving where you started and recognizing the place for the first time,” he says. “When I walked back onto the UW campus and sat down with those students, it was a ‘wow moment.’ I’m a 1972 graduate and I’m bringing the bacon back home.”
Find out more about Mercy Corps at www.mercycorps.org.