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Thomas Clarkson O’Brien

Tom O'BrienDied: January 14, 2020

Tom was one of the brightest, most creative people I have known and had talents in so many fields. He was an artist with keen analytical capability, an engineer with a gift for color and design, a builder whose values lifted his community. He had insights that continually surprised me and made me think of things in a different way. He valued originality and was never content to do anything a certain way simply because that was the way everyone else did it. He was suspicious of institutions and could flourish only where he could make his way on his own wits and in

accordance with his own values. While many of us were building careers in law firms or corporations, Tom was accumulating a far different portfolio of experience. Tom had an extraordinary ability to write new chapters in his life and reinvent himself with ease and confidence in changed surroundings.

The great constant in Tom’s life was Pam. They shared a fifty-year adventure as lovers, spouses, parents, business partners, and traveling companions. Pam describes their early years when Tom was the proverbial struggling artist living in a loft close enough to the National Zoo to hear the howls of the gibbons: “Life was financially poor, but rich with experience: Smithsonian Museums, art galleries, Civil War battle sites, Vietnam War protests, bridge games, $1 double-feature movie tickets at the Biograph, walks and picnics in Rock Creek Park, weekend camping trips, soccer games, cheap Rioja wine in wicker-covered jugs, $10 dinners for two at fabulous restaurants.”

And travel—countless trips to every corner of Mexico and South America in a series of decrepit Dodge Darts that, against the odds, brought them home again every time. Typically, Tom’s self-taught Spanish was no deterrent to his sense of adventure and willingness to learn by doing. For a time, Tom collaborated with the philosopher-priest Ivan Illich and taught a course in different theories of mental illness at Illich’s Intercultural Documentation Center in Cuernavaca before returning to the Washington area to take a series of teaching positions.

I envied Tom’s creativity. All of us can appreciate a beautiful sunset in the mountains but Tom could give life to it on canvas or paper. But Tom was both aesthetic and practical. In the late 1970s he realized that his aesthetic sense, flair for engineering, love of the outdoors and passion for the environment could become the basis for a career. He and Pam built a successful home design-construction business centered on solar power. After stays in Aspen and Prescott, Arizona, they relocated to Conway, Massachusetts, which became their home for the next three decades.

Tom understood that his job was to create spaces that actually work for the people who live in them and he had a firm grasp of and respect for the environmental constraints that limited his options and demanded a different kind of creativity. In Pam’s words, “working beside him for fifteen years I saw not only his artistic talent and in-depth knowledge of building and structural codes at work, but his honesty, kindness and respect for and interest in people from all walks of life.”

For many years visits with Tom and Pam were a valued and essential part of our annual summer trips to the Berkshires. A few years ago they moved to Sacramento to be close to their son, Loehl, and his family. Tom was particularly proud of Loehl’s distinction as an engineer and no doubt recognized the source of those capabilities. Tom was, among many other things, a fine teacher. I am very grateful to have been Tom’s friend for more than fifty years and honored to believe that I had a place in his life as well.

Mark Greenwold