Thomas P. O'Neill, Jr. known by almost everyone as "Tip," first ran for public office when he was still a college student. He lost his bid for a seat on the Cambridge City Council, but he learned two lessons that stayed with him for the rest of his life.
On Election Day, a neighbor told him that she would vote for him, "even though you didn't ask me." When O'Neill protested that he had known her since he was a child, had shoveled her walk and cut her grass, and didn't think he had to ask for her vote, she replied, "Tom, let me tell you something. People like to be asked." The next day, O'Neill's father ascribed the loss to Tip's failure to work hard enough in his own neighborhood. His advice became his son's motto: "All politics is local." Tip O'Neill never forgot these lessons, and he never again lost a campaign.
He was born in 1912 into an Irish-American family in North Cambridge, the neighborhood he called home for his entire life. His father, Thomas O'Neill, Sr., was a former bricklayer who had worked his way into a white-collar civil service job. The elder O'Neill was active in his union, his church, various community associations, and, perhaps most importantly for his son, the local Democratic Party. He was widely respected in the Irish-American community. Tip idolized his father; even after his death in 1953, Tip continued to use the suffix "Jr." to honor his memory.
Tom O'Neill, Sr. valued education, and his children received the best he could provide. His oldest son graduated from Holy Cross College and won a scholarship to Harvard Law School; his daughter became a teacher and, eventually, the first female principal in the Cambridge public school system. Tom attended St. John's High School, but he readily acknowledged that he was not the scholar his brother was. He had a gregarious personality, and an unquenchable appetite for sports, buddies, and card games. As he grew, his six-foot-four-inch frame helped him excel at football. He also loved playing and watching baseball, basketball, and golf. He earned his nickname imitating baseball great Edward O'Neill who was famous for hitting foul tips until he was walked. When Tip O'Neill graduated from high school in 1931, he did not go to college; he got a job driving a truck.