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John O'Connor, 46

developer, environmental advocate

By Tom Long, Globe Staff, 12/1/2001

John O'Connor, an environmental activist, developer, and former candidate for Congress, died yesterday in Cambridge Hospital after apparently suffering a heart attack while playing basketball in the Cambridge YMCA. He was 46.

The chairman of Gravestar Inc., Mr. O'Connor was the founder of Greenworks, a company that helps ''incubate'' environmental start-up companies.

''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,'' said his wife, Carolyn Mugar O'Connor.

Described as a tough competitor but warm and generous with a zeal for life, Mr. O'Connor had a motto he kept over his desk: ''The fun is in the fight.''

That summarized his philosophy, say those who knew him.

Jim Braude, a former Cambridge city councilor and manager of his campaign for Massachusetts' 8th Congressional District, said Mr. O'Connor's legacy of activism and environmental consciousness will benefit others for decades to come.

''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,'' Braude said. ''In that he clearly succeeded.''

In 1998, during a speech kicking off his run for Congress, Mr. O'Connor told the audience that growing up in Stratford, Conn., sparked his environmental consciousness.

The city is home to Raybestos, one of the largest asbestos manufacturers in the nation, a key employer in town and the sponsor of his Little League team, the Raybestos Cardinals. But during his sophomore year at Clark University in Worcester, Mr. O'Connor learned that Raybestos had built the team's baseball diamond atop a dump it once used for toxic chemicals, which some suspected in the cancer death of a teammate.

After graduating from Clark University, Mr. O'Connor joined Volunteers In Service to America, a government-funded organization dedicated to ending rural and urban poverty; he helped organize a low-income Worcester neighborhood.

During the next three decades, Mr. O'Connor's activism continued: 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.

Mr. O'Connor acquired a net worth estimated as high as $25 million when he married Carolyn Mugar, heir to the Star Market fortune. But he used the money to further what some described as urban populist activism.

In 1991, he founded Greenworks to give financial backing to fledgling environmental businesses. And Gravestar funded a $13 million, environmentally friendly overhaul of Porter Square.

A trustee of Clark University, Mr. O'Connor also was a director of the Irish Famine Memorial Committee. He also authored two books on the environment, ''Getting the Lead Out'' and ''Who Owns the Sun?'', and was working on a book on food policy.

In addition to his wife, he leaves a stepdaughter, Chloe of Cambridge; two brothers, Jeff of San Diego and James of Saugus; a sister, Emily, of Washington, D.C.; and his parents, Kay and George O'Connor of Stratford.

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

This story ran on page B7 of the Boston Globe on 12/1/2001.
Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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