I woke up this morning to the news that my friend Dick O’Neill had died. No surprise. Dick had been struggling with three diseases each of which could and should have killed him months ago.

Still, it hit me hard because no one has had a bigger impact on my life.

A Life-Long Impact

In part that reflects the fact that we had known each other since either kindergarten or nursery school—neither of us could remember. But either 71 or 73 years,

We were in the world’s worst boy band ever. He was a regular at our bar and bat mitzvah parties and actually knew more Hebrew than I did. We were cut from eighth grade basketball team on the same day (by his uncle no less). In a first burst of new left activism, my father drove three of us a Pete Seeger and Joan Baez concert in Hartford when we were freshmen in high school.

We more or less lost touch after college. I knew that he had joined the Navy, and he knew that I had been granted conscientious objector status (by yet another of his uncles who ran our local draft board). He knew that I had become an academic; I knew that he had stayed in the navy and had retired as a Captain sometime in the 1990s.

But that was about it.

A Remarkable Reunion—Part 1

Until our thirty-fifth high school reunion in 2000.

I went only out of a sense of obligation to visit my mother. I had not kept up with anyone from New London, including Dick. He didn’t come because his father was dying.

Yet that’s sort of how we “met” again.

I walked in, recognizing no one, and found myself in a reunion that didn’t have name tags. Somehow, I ended up sitting next to a classmate who was a realtor here in Washington DC  After she learned that I was working for the largest international peacebuilding organization, Nancy told me that I absolutely had to get in touch with Dick because he did exactly the same thing that I did.

That made no sense because I was a career peacenik and Dick had been a career military officer.

Still, I followed Nancy’s advice, got in touch with him when I got home, and we met for lunch a few days later. She was right. I discovered to my surprise and delight that Dick was part of a network of senior defense intellectuals were trying to get the Pentagon to think outside the clichéd box.

So, in the summer of 2001, he invited me to a meeting at the United States Institute of Peace where a group of senior defense intellectuals (plus me) discussed what the major security threats facing the United States of the next generation would be.

To our surprise, we settled in on the implications of a terrorist attack on the United States that might be set off by airplanes being flown into buildings.

A Remarkable Reunion—Part 2

Then, when the unimaginable happened a few weeks later, I was scheduled to host a book launch party at Search for Common Ground on September 13 for something I had just written on international conflict resolution. Dick came.

Somehow, we ended up doing the Q and A together. You couldn’t tell which of us was the career pacifists and which the career military officer.

He brought me in to early discussions about long term security strategy, including a few trips to the Pentagon and the military academies. I included him in discussions at Search and, later, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, on how we could work with the military in a world that had suddenly been turned upside down.

Thus began a twenty-year collaboration that helped forge some ties between communities that had rarely thought of each other as potential collaborators. We weren’t the only people to do so, but …

We each developed friends and colleagues in the other’s worlds. He even ended up on the AfP board and helped us redefine our strategy in ways that went far beyond national security to include systems thinking and the role of the arts in Peacebuilding.

Changed Lives

The more time we spent together, the more we realized that our lives intertwined above and beyond Peacebuilding.

We each had an interest in systems theory and complexity science, in the way technology was changing our lives, and in the possibilities that came from bringing together diverse groups of people and letting them tackle tough problems together. We discovered that our thinking had been shaped by many of the same thought leaders in Silicon Valley, the most innovative business schools, the Santa Fe Institute, and beyond.

But most of all, my life was touched by someone who truly knew how to leave his ego at the door when he convened groups of smart people, which is what he did for a living after he retired from the Navy. I try to do the same, but it’s often a struggle for me, but Dick’s generosity and his ability to take himself off of center stage seemed to come naturally.

He went so far as to do everything he could to keep is Highlands Forum out of the news, convinced that it was his role to do what we both call catalytic convening which would be the most effective it didn’t draw much public attention to the work. That might seem paradoxical, but I suspect he was right.

Somehow along the way, we became closer friends than we ever were as kids.

I’ve grown a lot in 24 years since that bizarre high school reunion. As an activist, a scholar, and as a human being.  Much of it because of Dick.

I will miss him. As will thousands of others.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.