On Saturday morning, over 1,000 Youngstown State University students received their diplomas at spring commencement in Beeghly Center. Youngstown native turned Hollywood star, Ed O’Neill received an honorary Doctorate of Arts degree.
O’Neill said it feels great to be Dr. O’Neill.
“Do you need an appointment?” he joked.
Nearly 6,000 attendees filled the seats in Beeghly Center for the undergraduate ceremony where over 1,000 students received diplomas and O’Neill shared memories of his time at YSU.
O’Neill attended Ursuline High School, YSU and Ohio University. He is currently featured in the hit show “Modern Family,” receiving nominations for best supporting actor by the Emmy’s, Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild.
“Everything in Youngstown has influenced me. It definitely shaped my sense of humor,” he said. “When I went to New York, I had a certain amount of confidence because of my experiences living in Youngstown.”
O’Neill grew up on the north side of Youngstown, a block from Wick Park. The last time he visited his home, he encountered a young man with low jeans and headsets.
“‘What are you doing in my driveway, yo?’ he asked me. ‘I don’t know if you grew up here. Are you Al Bundy?’ He said he was going to tell all his friends that ‘Al Bundy grew up in my mother f—king house!’”
While at YSU, he played linebacker for the Penguins under Dike Beede, the university’s first football coach.
O’Neill was recognized as the YSU Penguin of the Year before signing with the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, O’Neill was cut by the Steelers during training camp, the same day Neil Armstrong was the first man walking on the moon.
“Good day for him. Not too good for me,” he said during his speech.
A string of failed jobs would soon pave the way to O’Neill’s success. Substitute teaching, bartending and various sales jobs stood in the way of O’Neill’s acting dreams.
“When the owner of the Oaks asked me what I wanted, I was about to say ‘I’ll have a burger’ — but ‘Pabst Blue Ribbon’ came out. And that was the end of my sales job,” O’Neill said.
O’Neill saw an ad for plays at the Youngstown Playhouse. Then, he fell in love with acting and read every acting book he could get his hands on. By 30, he was managing a pub inside of Kilcawley Center making $10,000 a year.
He said knew if he wanted to become a real actor, he needed to leave Youngstown. He quit his job at the pub, sold his car then hopped on a Greyhound bus on the road to New York.
O’Neill found work at a gay bar where patrons would warn him “don’t bend over. I’m behind you,” before he found real work as an actor. He struggled and found himself on unemployment several times before being cast as the lead role as Al Bundy in the 11-year sitcom “Married … with Children.”
His message to the graduates was to persevere, even when the going gets tough.
“If there’s any lesson to be learned at all from this is never give up on yourself. Either find a way or go down swinging,” O’Neill told over 1,000 graduates in attendance.
“If you’re alone today, or with family, or friends, enjoy it. Don’t live with regret,” O’Neill said during his speech. “And now, as Al Bundy once said, ‘Let’s rock.’”
Robert Switka, a YSU graduate student, received his diploma Saturday with his parents and his girlfriend in attendance. Switka said he was surprised and proud to learn O’Neill is also an Ursuline High School alumnus.
“I thought Ed O’Neill’s speech was great. He showed you can reach your goal if you want it bad enough,” Switka said. O’Neill married Catherine Rusoff in 1986. They have two daughters, Claire and Sophia.
The family currently lives in Santa Monica, Calif., where O’Neill prepares to play the voice of an octopus in the upcoming film Finding Dory.