After college, Mr. O’Neill briefly attended George Washington University Law School in Washington. But he was not happy there and returned to Boston, where he got a job as a copy boy at The Globe and earned a master’s degree in journalism from Boston University in 1970. While still working on his degree, Mr. O’Neill wrote about the corrupt business dealings of a school committeeman. “He was a kid reporter, maybe 25, and this landed on the front page and caused a big stir,” Mr. Kurkjian said. He said the committeeman sued The Globe and put a lien on the O’Neills’ house, which upset his wife. “Gerry told her not to worry about it” because his reporting was solid, Mr. Kurkjian said. “Gerry in his bones was a very tough, very confident and very meticulous reporter, and all that blew over.” “This wasn’t training he’d gotten at The Globe,” he added. “This was something inside him. This was his character. And it showed for the next 40 years.” Image Mr. O’Neill in 2015. The investigative team he led won numerous awards and landed multiple Massachusetts officials in jail.
Mr. O’Neill spearheaded numerous investigations and articles that took a lot of digging and a lot of time — sometimes months, sometimes more than a year. They included a five-hour grilling of Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1974, on the fifth anniversary of the drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, and the meticulous examination of thousands of records at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which showed elevated rates of cancer and leukemia. Still, Mr. O’Neill never brought his work home with him, his son Shane said; he always made time for his family and encouraged his reporters to leave work, too, to rest and recharge their batteries. “He understood work-life balance before that became a cliché,” Shane O’Neill said. He also served as a mentor to young reporters. When one of them, John A. Farrell, was writing about corrupt judges for Spotlight about 30 years ago, he asked Mr. O’Neill for guidance on how tough he should be. “Write it so it scares you,” Mr. O’Neill told him. “After that,” Mr. Farrell said in an email, “I would have followed him onto any battlefield.”