A life of public service probably was inevitable for James F. Munnelly, who died Wednesday.
“From childhood on, politics was just something that was very much in the Munnelly family,” said nephew John Cavanaugh, a former U.S. congressman.
The family matriarch, an Irish immigrant, was a neighborhood activist who lived in South Omaha across the street from a polling place, “so everybody stopped at her house for coffee and voting instructions,” Cavanaugh said with a laugh. It was no wonder the family produced several officeholders.
Munnelly, who died just hours shy of his 92nd birthday, was on the Nebraska Public Service Commission for 30 years. The board was known as the State Railway Commission when he was elected in 1966, and he served longer than anyone in its history.
Sometimes he was the body's only Democrat, Cavanaugh said.
Munnelly's brother, John P. “Red” Munnelly, was in the Nebraska Legislature and served for many years as Omaha's postmaster.
Cavanaugh's brother Tom is the Douglas County clerk; their mother, Kathleen, was Munnelly's sister, and their father, Jack Cavanaugh, was on the Douglas County Board.
In fact, politics were fairly consuming: James Munnelly's wife, Nadine, said he didn't have hobbies other than following Nebraska football.
And golf, Cavanaugh added, even though Munnelly suffered from polio as a child. He defied predictions that he wouldn't walk again.
“He became a very good golfer despite the fact that he basically had almost no ankles at all because of the polio,” his nephew said.
Munnelly was born Jan. 23, 1922, in Omaha. He graduated from South High School and attended business college. He joined the Cudahy Packing Co. as a salesman in 1941 and then worked as a field auditor for A&P Stores in Des Moines.
In 1948, he took over brother John's bar, Duffy's Tavern, when John entered politics. He was in public relations for the Rosen-Novak car dealership before he joined the Public Service Commission.
Cavanaugh said his uncle genuinely cared about other people, their activities and their lives — traits that served him well in public life.
“He was absolutely charming — just a wonderful, warm person,” Cavanaugh said. “He also was a lot of fun.”
Munnelly's first wife, Frances, died in 1970. He met Nadine through mutual friends, and they were married for 38 years.
Recently, Munnelly had suffered from dementia and lost the ability to sit up or speak. The couple were living at Silver Ridge Assisted Living in Gretna when he died.
Besides Nadine, survivors include daughters Carol Chapman of Omaha and Mary Jane Dobbs of Rosemount, Minn.; sons James J. Munnelly of Arvada, Colo., and Patrick Munnelly of Elk River, Minn.; stepdaughter Debra Niles of Treynor, Iowa; stepson Ronald Tidd of Ellensburg, Wash.; 13 grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
A funeral Mass will be at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Gerald Catholic Church in Ralston.