To those of us who knew John O'Connor his humor, intelligence, and dedication to the cause of a safe environment, the family farm movement and progressive urban populism will be a legacy we shall not soon forget. His death at age 46 of a heart attack on Nov. 30 while playing basketball at the Cambridge, Mass., YMCA will be deeply mourned by many activists.
"John was a great man, and the world is a better place because of his compassion, great love, and unyielding drive to help other people," his wife, Carolyn Mugar O'Connor, executive director of Farm Aid, told the Boston Globe's Tom Long.
As a community organizer, environment activist, developer, author and a recent candidate for Massachusetts Eighth Congressional District John's hallmarks as a tough competitor, but warm and generous man with a zest for life, were probably best summarized by the motto he kept over his desk: "The fun is in the fight."
"Every single person John worked with -- from the president of Ireland to the kids he helped on the streets and in the schools back home -- knew that his passion was to leave the world a better place than he found it," Jim Braude, a former Cambridge city councilor and manager of his congressional campaign, told Long, "in that he clearly succeeded."
Harriet Barlow, a long-time friend and social activist remembers that O'Connor "was never cynical about his motives or his goals. He understood the real harm caused by toxics and the real threat posed by a non-renewable energy system. The structural changes he sought all addressed underlying causes, not just symptoms. What is a hero? It's someone who stands up and carries on with a commitment to the people who need him the most," Barlow stresses. "That was always the way I saw Johnny. He wasn't trapped by a single issue. He embraced a politics which was as big as his own heart, which was Irish after all."
Farm Aid's Program Director Ted Quaday recalls "the staff at Farm Aid universally regarded John as a great friend. His enthusiasm for life and his dedication to environmental, consumer and family farm causes were infectious. During his regular visits to the Farm Aid office he always brought with him humorous insight into the politics of the day and the circumstances under which we all struggle. We often sought him out for advice on farm and political issues, and his contributions to our work were always valuable as we moved forward."
In paying tribute to John, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) noted that "John O'Connor's zest for life and boundless energy were apparent from the moment you first met him, and those extraordinary qualities continued to amaze even those who knew him best and longest. His undeniable charisma helped win an enormous circle of friends. But his life was always about causes larger than himself. He credited his passion for social justice to the example of his parents, Katherine and George, to the Catholic faith and training he felt so deeply, and to his many inspiring teachers, especially at Clark University in Worcester, his alma mater."
After graduating from Clark University, O'Connor joined Volunteers In Service to America, a government-funded organization dedicated to ending rural and urban poverty, where he helped organize a low-income Worcester neighborhood, knocking on the doors of the three deckers of Grafton Hill in a successful campaign to end arson-for-profit in that neighborhood, a pattern he identified through disciplined research. The fire station built in response to that campaign remains a testament to John's first venture into grassroots organizing.
In college in the late 1970s, O'Connor organized fellow students to volunteer at the Mustard Seed, a Catholic Worker collective in Worcester dedicated to feeding the poor and homeless.
In the next three decades he helped organize labor unions in the 1970s, founded the National Toxics Campaign in 1983, a grass-roots movement which lobbied for passage of the Superfund Cleanup Law, and fought against deregulation of Bay State utilities in the 1990s.
As Kennedy pointed out in his Senate tribute "the combination of community organizing and strategic research led him to understand that the environment was also an urban issue, affecting the quality of life in low income neighborhoods as surely as in the great outdoors. He began this new work by organizing citizens to resist an ill-conceived landfill proposal and to negotiate with local factory owners to reduce emissions."
In 1991, he founded Greenworks, a company that helps "incubate" environmental start-up companies while assisting them in financial backing. It was Gravestar, where he served as the chairman of the company, that funded a $13 million, environmentally friendly overhaul of Porter Square. A trustee of Clark University, O'Connor also was a director of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee. Having authored two books on the environment, Getting the Lead Out and Who Owns the Sun?, he was working on a book on farm and food policy.
As first and foremost a community organizer John took on a wide range of issues with great dedication and effectiveness. He worked with scientists to document health concerns for veterans of the Gulf War. He made the case for environmental cleanup programs from Boston Harbor to the Rio Grande. He argued against the misuse of chemical poisons and other chemicals in agriculture. He was a strong believer in the importance of organized labor, and he fought alongside union members for strict protections for health and safety in the workplace.
As an American of Irish heritage, he led the 1997 drive to create the first permanent US memorial to the victims of the Irish Famine on Cambridge Common. To him, ethnic background and culture were intended to enrich the world, not divide it. He was proud to be known as an "ABC" -- an Armenian-by-Choice -- after his marriage to Carolyn Mugar, an outstanding leader and activist in the Armenian community. John enthusiastically joined her to make his own impressive contributions to that community.
In addition to his environmental and social activism John's personal life was also one based on commitment.
Doug Kysar of Ithaca, N.Y., recalls in a note to John's wife Carolyn how his wife Vicki brought home a lot of stories about people that she met through Farm Aid. "But one story that Vicki brought home from Farm Aid has always stuck in my mind, now more than ever. One day she came home to tell me that she'd met your husband. When I asked her to describe him, Vicki responded -- immediately -- that she had never met a man who more clearly loved and cherished his life-partner than John O'Connor. This was an adoration and a respect that was so deep it permeated John's life, visible within five minutes of meeting him. It is a tragedy that this type of love is so rare in the world, and even more of a tragedy that it has been cut short when it does exist."
For John's family, friends and colleagues Senator Kennedy's moving Senate tribute's last words ring oh so very true. "We in Massachusetts have lost one of our state's most active and effective champions of working families, consumers, and the environment. John left us much too soon. I mourn his loss, and I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife, Carolyn Mugar, his daughter, Chloe, his parents, his brothers and his sister, his nieces and nephews, and his many godchildren. In his memory, we pledge to recommit ourselves to the many great causes in which John did so much to lead the way."
John, good friend, R.I.P.
A.V. Krebs operates the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201 firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/