Monday, June 16, 2008

Some Remembrances of Brian O’Connell

I knew Brian through a professional society to which we both belonged, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE. Typically, although we both rose to leadership positions, neither of us was an electrical engineer. I want to share just a few recollections of Brian in that context.

A dozen years ago, I ran our annual conference on technology and society, which was at Princeton University in New Jersey that year. Brian was thinking about leaving lawyering for academia, and he somehow found out about the conference and showed up. It was the first time I met him. One of the conference sessions was missing a moderator, and two old geezers on the panel got into a fistfight over who invented the modem (remember modems?). This level of anarchy so impressed Brian that he told me "I’m joining this group, and heading to academia!" He went on to become president of that society, and with his sense of the absurd, he clearly fit right in.

Five years ago, we were at a successor conference in Amsterdam, with a distinguished Superior Court judge in tow. We were determined to get the judge drunk and let him loose on the streets of Amsterdam. We bought him drinks—very expensive ones, it turned out, because he liked the name brand liquors. I soon realized that the judge was drinking me under the table. It was at that moment that I also realized that Brian was drinking seltzer water, and that he didn’t indulge at all in alcohol during the years I knew him. He set some very clear guidelines for himself.

Several years ago, we were at a big board meeting in some U.S. city, maybe San Francisco, or Kansas City, or Minneapolis, or Phoenix—those hotel meeting rooms were all interchangeable. Maybe Sarah remembers. The room was full of 100 bored big shots suffering through the tedium of parliamentary procedure with their laptops open, reading CDs full of documents because WiFi wasn't yet ubiquitous. Although we were sitting on opposite sides of a big room, Brian and I discovered that we had the only Macs in a room of full of Wintel PCs. We further discovered that we were both Bluetooth-enabled (that was cool back then) and could communicate using an instant messaging program (also somewhat novel back then). Brian typed in a description of his recent mission as a mediator between a journal editor and a society president in Bosnia or Serbia, where one was suing another over editorial policy, of all things. Brian had to mediate without having a common language with either party, in a country that was still a war zone. This vision made me snort with laughter, which in turn got Brian laughing, and made the other meeting participants wonder what had gotten into us. They subsequently banned our cool communication technology from all future IEEE board meetings. Brian was irreverent, but always a peacemaker.
Finally, a few years ago, Brian learned of my fondness for Celtic music, and we often talked about it, because of course he was an accomplished musician in exactly that genre. One day a pair of CDs appeared in the mail, ripped from his collection and labeled "Clint’s Scottish" and "Clint’s Irish." I think of them today as "Brian’s Scottish" and "Brian’s Irish" music because shared them so thoughtfully. You and I miss him terribly, of course, but Brian lived a fun-loving, generous, purposeful, engaged, full, and lively life in the years he had.

--Clint Andrews

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