John O'Neill, chairman of F.C. Pilgrim

Had an email early Saturday from John O’Neill, the chairman of F.C. Pilgrim real estate. He was mortified, he wrote, about how he thought he sounded in a quote at the end of our story Friday following the announcement that Baird & Warner had acquired the 118-year-old, family-owned firm.

Our reporter Marty Stempniak had asked John how he felt about the Pilgrim name disappearing after all these years. “No remorse. I think it’s going to grow. It’s an opportunity for everybody involved,” he said.

When I read the quote as I edited the story, I thought John was just being stoic in a hard moment. But I understood from his email that he thought he sounded just downright hard-hearted. And anyone who knows him, and I’ve had the privilege for nearly 30 years, knows there is not a man with a bigger heart than John O’Neill.

He’s just a good man. That’s what I’d say of John. But that’s also a phrase he uses with some regularity as he sorts people out in his mind. He is generous in his judgments, going with his optimistic, faith-filled view of the world.

When we talked on Monday, John told me that his son Michael, who like him is caught up in this tough real estate market, “is just a good man.” And Stephen Baird, the scion of the acquiring firm, well, “We met and sat down and I liked him. He’s just a good man.”

Now this is an imprimatur worth earning.

With the news out, his longtime staff now in the know, John was more relaxed as we talked. “I feel badly but I feel good,” he said. “Sure it was a hard thing to do. But it was the right thing to do.”

He gave me some history on the firm, which dates back to 1893 when it was founded in Austin. Between the Pilgrim family and the O’Neill family, the firm has had just the two owners in more than a century in business. John bought the company in the 1970s from John Pilgrim, son of the founder, Francis Pilgrim. He describes John Pilgrim as “being like a father to me,” and notes in a tone that is old school and gentlemanly, “He was just as good a friend on the day he died as on the day I met him.”

Maintaining friendships is clearly vital to John O’Neill and looking out for his staff was on his mind in making this deal. “I’ve had a wonderful relationship with my people. I value that more than anything else,” he said.

While remaining successful and independent would, I expect, have been the O’Neill family’s preferred route, John is happy to see the glass half full. “This is a really good match [between Pilgrim and Baird & Warner]. Put the two companies together and we have 20 percent of the market. We’re both family-owned companies that operate with integrity. Let’s move forward. I’m going to stay involved, but I’m also going to think about re-retiring.”

The Big Bang: Monday’s the 4th. See you at the parade in the morning. Yes, we’re giving away Twizzlers again. And don’t miss the fireworks up at the high school. As always, Community Bank of Oak Park-River Forest is sponsoring the extravaganza, with Wednesday Journal funding the Grand Finale. We’re suckers for a big finish. But then you knew that.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...