"Billy" O'Neill: Dale Chihuly's right-hand man
William Martin "Billy" O'Neill was repairing boats, teaching a gym class and coaching soccer at Shoreline Community College when he met Dale Chihuly in August 1999.
Introduced by a friend who worked for Chihuly, O'Neill first skippered the artist's yacht to a meeting across Lake Union from Chihuly's studio. Within weeks, he was working for Chihuly, first as yacht captain, and then as personal driver, bodyguard, go-fer, maintenance man and caregiver when Chihuly sank into depression about a year later.
The one-time boat captain, coffee-cart operator and sandwich-shop owner is now in charge of day-to-day operations at Chihuly Inc. and Portland Press, the artist's publishing company.
Chihuly explained his decision to promote O'Neill through the ranks of one of the country's largest art enterprises, saying simply, "The opportunity came up and I did it."
O'Neill, 41, tells people he is an Irish national, but he was born in Germany to an Irish mother and immigrated to the United States at age 2.
He grew up in Kent, developed a passion for soccer and hung out at the now-defunct Longacres racetrack in Renton. He attended an evangelical Christian university in California for a year in 1988, and eventually attended the University of Washington, graduating with a bachelor's degree in social sciences in 1999.
O'Neill describes his youth as one of delinquency: He racked up three criminal convictions as a juvenile — two for malicious mischief and one for theft. He was twice arrested for theft as an adult, including once in 1983 for hauling a 7-foot couch down a stairwell at Sears and putting it in his truck without paying for it. Police nabbed him when he returned the couch minutes later at his girlfriend's insistence.
"What do you want me to say? I was a kid," said O'Neill. "It's obviously something I'm not proud of."
When O'Neill was facing deportation for the theft, his lawyer told the court in a letter that O'Neill's mother was dead. But O'Neill said in an interview that he didn't know anything about that letter. His mother, Mazie, lives in Texas.
O'Neill said he changed his name from William Martin Guion — his stepfather's name — in 1994, the same year he married the former Kari Curnutt, the attorney who last year filed Chihuly's suit against two glassblowers. O'Neill said he was reverting to his birth name.
As Chihuly's operations chief, O'Neill keeps a low profile. But he courted publicity early this year for a charitable campaign he started with Chihuly and winemaker Eric Dunham.
Last fall, O'Neill formed Billy O Wines, a for-profit company that will donate a portion of its proceeds to three charities for the next five years. Its first release, Mazie Chardonnay, generated $10,000 for the Moyer Foundation.
O'Neill said Chihuly is the best teacher he's ever had.
"Dale's great," he said. "I'm just lucky."
— Susan Kelleher
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company
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