Speechwriting Sample: Richard Daniel O'Connor III Eulogy

Richard Daniel O’Connor III: Reincarnating the King, the Warrior, and the Lover

A Eulogy for My Father

Richard Daniel O’Connor III lived an enigmatic, Pyrrhic, and transcendent life. As a Buddhist, he believed in reincarnation; thus, we meet today not just to mourn the loss of a man we all loved, but rather to celebrate what he believed would be his spirit’s passing into a new realm of being — merited in love, compassion, and consciousness. We also gather today to celebrate a second reincarnation of sorts–a reincarnation of what his life’s work has, at the time of his death, given each of us in this newfound realm of existence without him, so we may learn to carry him in our conscience and memory henceforth, albeit no longer in our experiences. It is in this secondary reincarnation that Richard is still very much alive and will continue teaching us for decades, perhaps even centuries after his passing, and while we hold his indomitable spirit with us. There’s much to be said of a man whom the world still wasn’t ready for, even at the time of his passing. This becomes clear in hearing the music to which he danced throughout life–its broad, deep, heartrending melodies falling not on deaf ears, but rather ears merely lacking the resolve to keep pace with the frequency into which he was tuned, much less the movement of his feet. His life’s magnum opus, however, wasn’t about his own song and dance — it was about serving his family and as many people in the world as well as he possibly could, even when these objectives came at great personal cost. 

There’s no appreciating the transcendent beauty of Richard’s life without first understanding the traumas and personal demons he conquered as a profoundly sensitive man. Despite learning to keep a stiff upper lip in Catholic seminary and having been imbued with his Mom’s rugged, southern sensibilities, he appeared as a man who held the world together with each breath while he felt as if his next breath would mean the world tearing him apart. Ravaged by anxiety, and depression, he developed coping abilities which helped him battle and win the war against addiction. At times, he was so hard on himself that it made it hard for him to love others as much as others loved him. The fear this produced in him was significant: He once said “If anybody knew the anxiety I had just getting out of bed in the morning, they would’ve deemed me a hero.”

As a boy in seminary, he experienced the wrath of God at the hand of his teachers’ rulers, which to him felt like unexplained cruelty from above – devoid of the other portion of the Catholic doctrine, which espouses grace and forgiveness. In one of his journal entries, he recounts this period in his life as one in which he was “… using a lot of energy trying to do what others thought I should do, rather than doing what I wanted.” While it would have been hard to predict at this stage of his life, these are the memories upon which he drew to form his  self-deprecating sense of humor, which would break that otherwise unshakeable Irish omerta guarding his undeserved sense of inferiority. 

Good times create weak people. Weak people create hard times. Hard times create strong people. Strong people create good times. Given everything Richard overcame in life, he was one of the few strong people routinely creating good times, and therein lies the essence of his inner warrior.

While Richard would never tell you he was a warrior, he was. He knew it was far better to be a warrior in a garden than a gardener in a war. That’s why he  wasn’t afraid to run the football through a defensive line full of players nearly twice his size as a high school football player. In recounting that experience, his self-deprecating disposition led him to tell others the only reason he outran everyone was because he was “the most afraid player on the field.” It’s uncertain whether it dawned on him that a man can’t become a warrior without being brave, and that bravery is unobtainable in the absence of fear. In fact, such a mindset is courage of the rarest order. 

Therefore, his fear and the action he took in spite of it is what defined his warrior spirit in the first half of his life. At the end of every high school football practice, Richard’s football team ran wind sprints. He was so fast that only the lens of a camera could catch him, so his  coach would ask the team as they all got to the starting line, “Who’s gonna beat O’Connor?” As a 5 ‘8’’ 145-lb varsity halfback averaging 9.5 yards per carry, nobody could answer that question until many decades later except Richard and the answer to the question of who could ever beat him was, ironically, himself. His performance as an athlete foreshadowed what would become the thematic arc of his life overcoming difficult circumstances against all odds and despite having faced many fear-inducing challenges.

His children have lived in ways akin to his indomitable, warrior spirit, embodying his brutal work ethic and level of determination, which knew neither top nor bottom, and looped unrelentingly as if driven by a motor running on endless fumes. When completing his doctoral dissertation, he worked on the project every day, all day for an entire year, taking only one evening off in all 365 days to “watch a short movie.” Even in times of uncertainty, where no outcome was certain, his drive allowed him to still work as if it was impossible to fail. For example, he’d knock it out of the park at the office, much like he did on the baseball field, relying on his bonuses to ensure he could pay for his kids’ college tuition. After suffering from mononucleosis in college, he lost much of his coordination and athleticism, and realized it when attempting to walk on to Notre Dame’s baseball team. Had he not become so ill, there’s no telling how far he could’ve gone as either a football player or baseball player. Instead of giving up, he applied this toughness and discipline to his studies, refusing to allow circumstances negatively impact the trajectory of his life, and the example he wanted to set for his future children.

So, he  read over 400 pages per day as an undergraduate at Notre Dame majoring in history, seldom coming up for air. This marked the beginning of his transformation from physical to mental warriorship, proving a warrior’s most deadly weapon is his intellect. He knew (and was taught) that there was no such thing as a lousy job; just lousy people who don’t care to do it. Despite all that the warrior in Dick O’Connor achieved and forged in the trajectory of his life as an overachiever, this aspect of his personality is not what bred his finest achievements. As a father, he did better for his children. He knew the secret of change is to focus all one’s  energy not on fighting the old, but building the new. In Buddhism, there is a concept of the peaceful warrior, which Richard led for the final half of his life in developing his inner kingdom, and lover. He learned that one will always lose the battle that he fights if it is fought only for himself. In reaching outside himself, he developed his inner king. 

The warrior in Richard gave him the private victories any man must log in the annals of his experience before logging any significant public victories–the latter of which he would secure in great numbers. Therefore, he secured the many public victories of his life in being a good king, and this is made clearest in the role he played for his peers, numerous benefactors and, primarily, his children. He embodied the notion that a man is never too weak to fight if his cause is greater than his own life, and he demonstrated this in the effort he put into his 5 children. As a boy, I remember tossing a football with him on our front lawn. Attempting to catch one of my errant throws, he broke his ankle.

In response, after his ankle had healed, he put better shoes on his feet instead of trying to persuade the world to wrap itself in burlap: He knew the life’s work of any man could never be accomplished trying to change the world solely for the sake of escaping his own pain, regardless of how much pain he had faced and overcame in his own life. He also loved watching his children play sports. When the Evanston hockey program started to go downhill in its emphasis of sportsmanship between players on the ice, he didn’t want to see his son and his teammates in that sort of environment, so he joined the hockey program board, led adoption of a new set of standards and sportsmanship principles, and hired a great new coach. From that point on, the program was something of which all the parents could be proud. He challenged otherwise unquestioned systems, as any good king would. He understood that to serve is to rule, and that if service was beneath him, leadership was beyond him. 

As is a chief characteristic of a good king, he  always believed in serving others. He spent many hours starting and running AA meetings in prisons. It was hard work to drive all the way to the federal prison in downtown Chicago or rural Oregon, then get prisoners to attend the meetings. But he found it very rewarding when incarcerated men would open up during meetings and share their painful life stories. Some thanked him profusely for changing their lives. He started several prison AA groups that drew so many participants that they became self-sustaining, leaving traces of his grace and effort behind even after his departure. 

He worked hard as a manager at the Oregon Building Congress to attract more young people to jobs in the construction industry. He founded a new alternative school near Portland that offered a no-nonsense, hands-on career track for high-school students, leading to high-paying apprenticeships as plumbers, carpenters and laborers. Around Portland, trade unions and anti-union construction firms hated each other. It wasn’t too many years earlier that they had been battling and shooting at each other in violent strikes on job sites. But somehow, in an amazing coup, Richard got the unions and nonunion contractors to cooperate in backing his revolutionary charter school. This gave students who otherwise might have become dropouts a real chance at success. As a leader, Richard wasn’t about being in charge – he was about taking care of the people in his charge. His compassion was different from the leftists of those around him, but he stuck to his principles without faltering. He believed that the individual was the most central minority, regardless of their color, ethnicity, race, or background, and that if he didn’t protect the rights of the individual first, he couldn’t provide worthwhile education to larger minority groups. 

He was keenly aware of the world he lived in in the latter stages of his life – one of cheap likes and social media. Perhaps the bravest aspect of Richard’s character is his inner love, for it knew that liking is for cowards, and instead chose to go for what could hurt–love. Despite the numerous  achievements he garnered as a warrior and king throughout his life, the last and greatest process of Richard’s self actualization was the love he deservingly cultivated for himself, which overflowed on to others. He was a man who was most like himself when laughing, and he often laughed in the lighthearted presence of the love he gave others. He would dress up as Santa Claus at schools and parties during the holidays, because it was fertile ground for numerous jokes with perfect punchlines, but also a way to serve others: Despite having felt neglected at some points in his childhood, he signed up to play Santa at the mall during the holiday season, giving the children he met hope, laughs, and sheer enjoyment with his jolly presence, but he didn’t limit his humor and love from showing in unsafe places, either. He once trotted down Burnside Avenue in Oregon, which has been described as Portland’s version of Skid Row. He went ho-ho-ho-ing down the street among the homeless, calling out, “I lost my reindeer, ho ho ho,” to which one homeless man responded, “Man, in this neighborhood, somebody probably stole them and ate them.”

While Richard enjoyed the joke more than any of the numerous people to whom he retold it, he didn’t venture into a crime-ridden neighborhood that wintry evening looking for a laugh. Rather, he did so to give the people inhabiting such a hopeless place a sense of cheer. And, had Richard been a less resilient man, he knew he could’ve wound up in circumstances similar to the ones of those living abject lives of poverty on the street. The lover inside him knew what his inner warrior and king didn’t: That progress is, in a sense, as illusory as life is absurd. This understanding gave him the wisdom to spend less time on the clock in search of excellence, and more time following his inner compass, which grounded him in the reverie of the present moment and knowledge that he could only keep what he gave away. As Richard’s health ailed and the doctors grew increasingly amazed by his resilience, I believe the love he had shared and given to those in his life somehow stented his broken heart together, helping him endure longer than any physical indicators suggested he would.  A free spirit is just an old soul without karmic debt, and this was the condition in which his soul left his body. 

In his final days, all five of us children gathered around him or spoke to him by phone to exchange our final words with him in this earthly intercession. While he had lost the ability to speak, he could still hear. In my final conversation with him on the evening before he passed away, a gentle breath of recognition exited the flume of his throat as I began to speak to him. I told him how much I loved him, thought the world of him, and that I would see him ‘soon,’ at least on the timeline of eternity. After he had passed away the following morning, I envisioned him having left us in peace, cradled in the folded wings of a seraph, as tears streamed down my cheeks.

Soon, a happier vision came over me, revealing a truer vision of him and the life he had lived as a warrior, king, and lover. And so there he sat in my memory, thumbing the beads of his Buddhist necklace in prayer, through his fingers one by one, spirit leaving body in the lotus position. The wild spirit he gave me at birth shifted my mind’s gears into a vision of us in his black 2006 Corvette with me in the passenger seat, laughing, smiling, and speeding down I-5 in Oregon with the sunroof down, as he slams the brakes at the speed of sound and skids into the end of his road… out of breath, thoroughly used up, worn out, and exclaiming ‘Wow, what a ride!’