Catherine “Kate” M. O’Neill’s introduction to social justice was in Catholic school in the early 1970s during one of the first Earth Day celebrations.
“The nuns I had in grade school were very strong advocates for education and social responsibility,” O’Neill, former CEO of the University of New Mexico-Taos (UNMTaos), wrote in a recent email. “I distinctly remember making posters for Earth Day and writing up reasons why people should not buy grapes. I think it was the first time I realized that education plays an important role in our lives as humans and community members.”
Inspired in part by what she learned from the nuns and later at her Quaker high school, O’Neill pursued a life in higher education and service, one that brought her by chance to Taos.
“I came to visit Taos in 1993 and my wagon wheel fell off,” she said. “I had no intention of moving here.”
She never left.
And in the ensuing 24 years, she became a champion in helping foster and grow the UNM-Taos campus, along with serving on several community boards.
Her efforts earned her the vote as the Taos 2017 “citizen of the year.” Rep. Roberto “Bobby” Gonzales, D-Taos, is among those who said she deserves the accolade for expanding the UNM branch and adding programs. O’Neill might not be a native Taoseña, but “she blended well with the community,” Gonzales said.
“She’s one of those individuals who didn’t just expect it to happen,” he said. “She worked at it. She was very involved in the legislative sessions.”
Gonzales added, “She’s a shining star for the branch campus. So is her staff.”
O’Neill earned a Bachelor of Arts in art history from Tufts University and a Master of Education degree in psychology from Harvard University before landing in Taos. She would later go on to earn a doctorate in education, also from Harvard.
In Taos, she helped Community Against Violence establish a counseling program and was the clinical director until 2003. She also began teaching at the Taos Education Center, the precursor to UNM-Taos.
“It was Fred Peralta who got the UNM regents to take the Taos Education Center under their auspices and to get the Klauer family to donate the land south of town with the vision that it would someday be a full-fledged campus,” said O’Neill, 58, in an August interview. “It was quite remarkable that UNM-Taos was able to achieve branch status.”
O’Neill worked her way up from adjunct faculty in 1994 to chairing the UNM-Taos psychology department a decade later. In 2006, she was named chief executive officer of UNM-Taos. Under her direction, UNM-Taos’ budget grew 250 percent and the college brought in more than $25 million in grants. The branch campus added an early childhood education center, a nursing program and when the Chevron molybdenum mine closed near Questa, she was a driving force behind a new commercial driver’s license program to retrain miners who had lost their jobs.
When she stepped down as CEO in 2016, plans were underway to expand a small business innovation center and digital media arts program. The college also works with nine area high schools on concurrent enrollment, allowing students the opportunity to graduate with a diploma and an associates degree at the same time.
O’Neill is particularly proud of the nursing program, a small 16-student program that is nationally accredited and has a 100 percent pass rate on the national nurse exam.
Besides her work at the college, O’Neill also has served on the boards of the Harwood Museum, the Taos County Chamber of Commerce and the New Mexico Association of Community Colleges and is currently on the board of the Taos Community Foundation. She also serves on the Blue Cross Blue Shield Auxiliary Board.
She tends to credit others and downplay her accomplishments.
O’Neill said many others deserve accolades for creating and expanding UNM-Taos: “I’m honored to receive this recognition. But honestly, so many times – if the county hadn’t loaned us a truck for the CDL program, if El Valle hadn’t said yes to a sewer line – we couldn’t have accomplished what we did. So many times the community
stepped up to support us.”
She believes the students at UNM-Taos are the real unsung heroes. Most are older, working and have families to care for at the same time they are taking college courses. One student particularly sticks in her mind. “She had four teenage sons, four jobs and was taking four classes,” O’Neill recalled. “I don’t know how that is humanly possible.”
But those who know O’Neill say she has shown unstinting commitment to the college, the students and the larger community.
For inspiration in managing her team of educators, this small-town girl who grew up on a farm along the Delaware River looks to baseball.
Her grandfather, Mike O’Neill, and great-uncles immigrated from Ireland and became coal miners in Pennsylvania. They also loved baseball and went on to play in the major leagues in the early 1900s. Her great-uncle, Steve O’Neill, was the best known of the brothers. He played for the Cleveland Indians in 1920 when they won the World Series. He went on to manage several teams, including the Detroit Tigers, who won the pennant in 1945, and the Boston Red Sox. He was known for his genial, easygoing management style, transparent about strategy and willing to make time even for a high school cub reporter.
“Baseball continues to inspire me,” O’Neill said. “My management philosophy is heavily predicated on that of Steve O’Neill.”
O’Neill said her great-uncle embodied what Jim Collins, in his book “Good to Great in the Social Sectors,” describes as “legislative leadership,” a more collaborative approach. “In Collins’ terms, it is embodied by personal humility and professional will,” O’Neill said. “In baseball terms, it can be summed up as ‘the players with the best team versus the team with the best players.’ Great-Uncle Steve was encouraging, but also set high standards.”
“He coached towards ‘the whole being more than the sum of its parts.’ That philosophy got him World Series wins as a player and manager,” she noted of her great-uncle. “The same philosophy inspired me to coalesce UNM-Taos faculty and students around mutual goals of truly serving as the community’s college and providing excellent workforce opportunities through academic programs to better people’s lives.”