DEARBORN — Former Dearborn Mayor John B. O’Reilly, Sr., father of the current mayor of Dearborn, who led the City through two terms from 1978-1985, died on Wednesday, February 6 at his Lakeport, MI home. He was 89.
Remembered for his phrase: “Good neighbors make good neighborhoods,” as mayor he moved Dearborn forward in a time of changing economics for the city and the country.
He exerted steady leadership to revitalize businesses and bring new traditions to the city, like the annual community festival (now known as Homecoming), even as Dearborn wrestled with the loss of revenue from Ford Motor Company following landmark tax tribunal decisions, and the country struggled with a recession.
He consolidated city departments, reducing the number from 22 to 13, cut the deficit by one-third and streamlined city operations, while preserving Dearborn’s hallmark city services.
During his time in office, he worked on the rejuvenation of the shopping districts in the east and west sides of the city, helped spur the revitalization of neighborhood businesses along Warren Avenue and improve the Dix Avenue area.
The city hall campus was upgraded to include a Veterans Plaza and a village green and a new concourse.
Notably, he oversaw the reassessment of property in Dearborn, addressing inequities that had developed over the years. His popularity was so strong that even as residential assessed values were increased by 54 percent, he overwhelmingly won reelection in 1981 with 70 percent of the votes.
O’Reilly considered one of his biggest achievements the creation of citizen commissions and neighborhood associations to promote broad community involvement on important issues like updating the city’s building code, and, for generating community spirit, like hosting the city’s 50th anniversary party.
Notably, he appointed a blue ribbon task force resulting in one of the best cable television franchises in America in 1981.
He believed in community involvement himself. At one point, he was an active member of 31 community organizations, often attending two or three meetings a night.
He was Dearborn’s fourth mayor. Before becoming mayor, O’Reilly, Sr. served as police chief for 11 years, from January 1966 until July 1977. He pioneered such crime prevention programs as a police hot line, a Neighborhood Watch program, a special operations unit and a 200-member police reserves unit.
He also initiated one of the first community policing efforts in the state, opening a “mini-station” in the south end of Dearborn, working in partnership with the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.
He introduced innovated police training with creation of the Police Explorer Post for young people and the police cadet program. He was also recognized by the U.S. Attorney General in 1972 for achieving some of the highest crime reduction in the nation as chief of police.
He retired as police chief to run for the mayor’s office.
A 25-year veteran of the armed services, including four years of active duty during World War II and two years in the Korean War, he held the post of Director of Dearborn’s Veterans Bureau from November 1957 to April 1964.
He started his career with Dearborn as Civil Defense Director in July 1955.
A familiar face at Dearborn activities, especially veterans events, following his retirement, O’Reilly was honored by the Dearborn Exchange Club in April 2007 when a Freedom Shrine was dedicated to him at Geer Park School.
His military service began in 1942. He served as a drill instructor at Camp Roberts, California. O’Reilly graduated from the Officer Candidate School, eventually serving as lieutenant during the Korean War, where he commanded troops at the front line. He continued his military service the 1950s, 60s and 70s as an officer in the Army National Guard, retiring with the rank of major.
Even with his life-long commitments to his community and country, his greatest gifts were the love and warm-hearted spirit he shared with his family. He and his first wife, Violet Sylvia, had seven children: Particia, John Jr. (Chris), Maryann Dennehy (Ray), Joseph (Leslie), Dennis (Noemi), Cheryl Ann Davis (Jerry) and Larry (Maureen).
He is also survived by his wife, Julie, and 10 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
Public visitation will be on Sunday, February 10 from noon to 7 p.m. at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center, 15801 Michigan Avenue. Funeral mass will be at St. Alphonsus Church in Dearborn on Monday, February 11 at 11 a.m.
In lieu of flowers, donations are requested to the Dearborn Lions Club, P.O. Box 2634, Dearborn, MI 48123; the Dearborn Goodfellows, 13710 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, MI 48126; or ACCESS, 6451 Schaefer, Dearborn, MI 48126