His name may not be familiar to many Rochesterians other than older political activists and reporters. David O'Brien, who died July 13 in Tucson, Arizona, didn't hold public office himself. He and his wife Nancy moved to Tucson 15 years ago, and he has been known there for his teaching and his research in chemistry, not for politics.
But during his years in Rochester, his interest in politics and in ethical, inclusive government helped transform the Monroe County Democratic Party.
O'Brien and a handful of other young activists organized a group called the Democratic Action Committee and in 1970 set out to reform a party run by an entrenched, exclusivist old guard. Within a few months --- and over the protests of his employer, Kodak --- O'Brien ran for party chair. Although he lost, it was clear that the DAC was gaining strength: he won 44 percent of the committee vote.
Following that defeat, O'Brien held the reformists together and kept them focused, says Rochester attorney Tom Fink, one of the original DAC organizers. Pushing for integrity and inclusiveness, the DAC activists enlivened and enriched the party, drawing in women, racial minorities, and young people. And in 1972, they took control of the party, electing Larry Kirwan (who died of cancer earlier this year) chairperson.
"We brought women into the party for the first time," says Fink. "We ran women for office for the first time." Campaigning on a "good government" platform, the party took control of City Hall. Its pro-integration candidates took control of the Rochester School Board. And the party drew into politics numerous young adults who went on to serve in county, state, and judicial offices.
"The effect on the party, on the people running for office, went on for at least 20 years," says Fink.
O'Brien, says his friend Joan Hensler, a former Rochester City Councilmember, was "a leader whose passion for good government drove him to activities which made a dramatic improvement in Monroe County politics."
O'Brien was so dedicated to reform politics, says Tom Fink, that when he ran for party chair in 1970, he was planning to give up his profession as a chemist and become fulltime party chair.
Nonetheless, says his wife Nancy, his real love was research chemistry, not politics. He left Rochester in 1987 to accept a position in the chemistry department at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was a career to which he was devoted, and despite the knowledge that he was losing his fight with cancer this year, he completed his spring-semester teaching. At the time of his death, he was respected nationally for his research and was revered by his students.
"He cared about the world, his community, and people," says Nancy. And he left a legacy of integrity, in politics, in his profession, in his daily life. At the memorial service in Tucson, says Nancy, son Jim said he wanted to talk about his father's integrity. Tom Fink uses the same word: "absolute, total integrity."
While role models are often elders, O'Brien's sense of ethics was so strong that in his early 30's, he inspired a vast number of people his own age --- so many that his impact is still visible in Monroe County politics today.
"He was not a loud guy," says Tom Fink, "not a Mario Cuomo-type speaker. But he could inspire people to action by his own example. You thought: That's the way I should perform. That's what I should do."
--- Mary Anna Towler