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A Tribute to "Chick" O'Leary

Each year I look forward to the New York Times Magazine year-end “The Lives They Lived” issue. In it the magazine highlights people, some well-known (Nelson Mandela, James Gandolfini), some less-well-known (Queen Fawzia, John Hollander) who passed away that year, and provides new insights into their lives. This year the editors added a new section called “The Lives They Loved,” that allowed readers to post online profiles and a photo of someone close to them who died during the year. This is all part of a mild obsession I have with obits – I find them among the most fascinating parts of newspapers as they often tell remarkable stories about people you never heard of – one of my favorites being a long-ago New York Times obit that told the story of a man who during World War II spirited hundreds of Jews out of France with an elaborate system of collaborators, then ran a tie factory in New York for 30 years. The simple word the Times used to sum up this man’s remarkable life? “Tiemaker.”

This issue has special resonance for me as we enter 2014 because of the passing of a family member of one of our own. Charles “Chick” O’Leary was the father of Ann O’Leary, who directs our Children and Families program and our Too Small to Fail project. If you lived in Maine over the past 50 years or so, there is a good chance that you heard about Chick  – he was the longtime head of the AFL-CIO, who as former Governor John Baldacci said, “spent his career fighting for the working men and women of Maine to make sure they were able to make a living wage, had healthcare benefits, worked in a safe environment, and were able to save for retirement.” And when you think about it, aren’t those pretty much the things we all want in life? 

Chick’s values are embodied in the work of his daughter, Ann O’Leary, and are part of the DNA of Next Generation. My partners at Next Generation, Jim and Tom Steyer, are tireless advocates for helping those who are trying to get a foot up on the ladder and live a fulfilled life where they can raise their kids in a healthy world of opportunity and prosperity. You will see this in the coming year with projects we roll out to help working families and their children in California and improve the air quality that affects many low-income families, as well as through our Too Small to Fail initiative.

There are many people like Chick who wake up every day looking to fight the good fight, whether they are trying to halt climate change, improve education or create fair working conditions. They deserve recognition, but more importantly, they are models for the Next Generation.

One last thing about Chick – he knew how to bring joy to his work and family. One often repeated anecdote is the one about him giving an interview to a Maine television news crew and with a straight face telling them that he is a cousin of then Boston Red Sox outfielder Troy O’Leary. If you don’t get the joke, Google a picture of Chick and Troy O’Leary and you will laugh along with Chick, just as he would have loved.     

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