News & Politics

John O'Connor, Environmental Activist, Dead at 46

As founder of the National Toxics Campaign, a green business leader and eventually a progressive candidate for Congress, John O'Connor led a notable life of hard-fought battles.
John O'Connor was a long-time environmental activist and progressive leader whose work and vision shaped a life with as many twists and turns as his complex personality. O'Connor died suddenly at Cambridge Hospital on Friday, November 30. He had suffered a heart attack while playing basketball at the Cambridge YMCA. He was 46.

O'Connor is probably best known as the leader of the National Toxics Campaign, a ground breaking effort he founded in 1983 to raise consciousness about the deadly impact of abuses perpetuated by unregulated chemical companies. The campaign, at its height, was a major national force for change. It was eventually buffeted by conflicting forces within the world of grassroots politics, and by friction surrounding issues of race and class. O'Connor later became the chairman of Gravestar Inc., an assets management company with a mission to stay committed to the environment and the community. In 1991, he also founded Greenworks, a company that "incubates" environmental start-up companies.

It was perhaps fitting that O'Connor's death come during the give-and-take of competitive sports. O'Connor engaged in the game of progressive politics with the zeal of a Boston pol, which he eventually became, running for Congress in 1998.

A moving obit in the Boston Globe described him as a "tough competitor but warm and generous with a zeal for life. "O'Connor had a motto over his desk: 'The Fun is in the Fight.'"

His friend and fellow activist Harriet Barlow says 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," says Barlow. "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."

Mr. O'Connor told a 1998 audience that he traced his environmentalist roots back to his hometown of Stratford, Conn, according to the Globe. During his sophomore year at Clark University, O'Connor learned that a Stratford asbestos company had built his boyhood little league baseball diamond atop a dump once used for toxic chemicals. Some suspected that the dump, and the asbestos manufacturer Raybestos, may have been responsible for a teammate's death from cancer.

O'Connor was married to Carolyn Mugar, an heir to the Star Market fortune, who is a long time activist and organizer of Farm Aid and a close collaborator with famed musician Willie Nelson.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
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