Even seated outside the Taft Street Coffeehouse on a peaceful, breezy North Montrose Tuesday, Tim O'Brien overflows with nervous energy, occasionally cut with a shot of pure cold fury. He waves his hands and jabs the air with accusatory fingers as he calls forth a tangled litany of complaints, some directed against UH's history department (where he is a doctoral candidate) and administration, others against his arch-nemesis U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee.
The fortysomething social activist speaks at an iced coffee-fueled, machine-gun clip that is occasionally too fast for a tape recorder to pick up. For O'Brien, grad school, and life in general, are full-contact sports, and heaven protect anyone who gets in the way of his idea of justice.
Taft Street is a most apt locale for a chat with O'Brien. The coffeehouse is both leftist and Christian just like he is, and Taft is one of Houston's old Jim Crow-era division streets, with blacks historically living on the east and whites to the west. O'Brien straddles the color line — a red-haired, very pale-skinned Caucasian who lives in nearby, historically black Freedmen's Town and attends a black church, the second he has joined since souring on the Roman Catholic faith of his upbringing over his perception of greed on the part of the Archdiocese.
"When you read my writing, everything is framed through the language of racial injustice," he states flatly. (O'Brien's nearly complete dissertation is about legendary Third Ward bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins. For a musician of his stature, surprisingly little has been written on Hopkins, and O'Brien perceived an injustice.)
Houston Texans vs. Cleveland Browns
TicketsSun., Oct. 15, 12:00pm
TicketsSat., Oct. 21, 7:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Indianapolis Colts
TicketsSun., Nov. 5, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. Arizona Cardinals
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 12:00pm
Houston Texans vs. San Francisco 49ers
TicketsSun., Dec. 10, 12:00pm
In the last three years, the full-time grad student founded UH chapters of Students for Fair Trade and Students Against Sweatshops. While the groups have scored some victories — fair-trade coffee is now an option at UH where it wasn't before — O'Brien's activities in connection with both have resulted in vicious disputes with faculty and staff. O'Brien and his little band of cohorts — ranging from fellow students to Black Panthers to his half-Korean three-year-old daughter — have lately raised holy hell on the normally calm commuter school campus.
The groups — described by O'Brien's enemies as "cultlike" — have barged into meetings and executive office suites, picketed buildings and private homes, held videotaped news conferences, buttonholed and grilled college brass (also with cameras rolling), and flyered the campus with inflammatory broadsides, calling UH professors everything from "house Negroes" to "Microsoft bag-men."
Some of O'Brien's antics have resulted in official disciplinary charges. O'Brien says the charges are all phony: "The university didn't like the press that my student groups were getting, so they invented a bunch of discipline charges to try to expel me," he says. "This isn't high school," he continues, now snarling. "I didn't get caught smoking cigarettes in the bathroom. You can't just put me in detention hall. I pay a fee and I've got a family." (O'Brien's Korean-born wife Kyong Mi has been paying O'Brien's way through grad school on her earnings as a claims adjuster and translator.)
He accuses the history department of cutting his grad student funding because of his writings about neighborhood activist and O'Brien mentor Lenwood Johnson that also excoriate Jackson Lee. A few years ago, while working on his master's, O'Brien also wrote scholarly articles about Johnson's battle to save Allen Parkway Village. In them, O'Brien alleged that Jackson Lee connived with then-U.S. Representative and Republican Tom DeLay in turning over the downtown-adjacent neighborhood to real estate developers.
O'Brien points out that Jackson Lee's husband just so happens to be Elwyn Lee, the UH dean of student affairs, and O'Brien believes that Lee personally intervened (at his wife's behest) to cut his student funding in retaliation for his writings. In July of last year, O'Brien told a college reporter that Elwyn Lee was "afraid that [his] research about Freedmen's Town" would prove that Jackson Lee had been working to "wreck" Freedmen's Town for 13 years. Elwyn Lee has long refused to comment on the specific allegation, but has always maintained that the school would not retaliate against a student in such a manner. Jackson Lee did not return a phone call from the Houston Press.
Last July, the former Baker Botts paralegal started to fight back through the courts. O'Brien filed a federal lawsuit against UH, former UH interim president John Rudley and current UH president Renu Khator, claiming that the school violated his First Amendment rights and unfairly retaliated against him.
A second suit, like the first, also filed pro se by O'Brien, lists 29 UH faculty and staff members as defendants and features O'Brien's three-year-old daughter as a co-plaintiff. This suit claims, among many, many other things, that two professors were in breach of their contracts to O'Brien (by not returning his exam papers with comments), that O'Brien was defamed verbally and in writing, that O'Brien was assaulted by a secretary, and that several professors, administrators, staff members and one unnamed campus cop inflicted emotional distress on O'Brien and/or his daughter.
People in the UH history department claim that if anyone is inflicting emotional distress, it's O'Brien, and it's directed at them. "If I could be amused by him, that would be one thing," says a source we'll call Dr. George. George is employed by UH and is very close to the situation and claims to be simply too sick of dealing with O'Brien to comment on the record. "But he's scary."
But O'Brien does have his supporters. "Some criticize Tim for being confrontational, but that is mostly a consequence of the uncomfortable truths he forces people to reckon with," says an attorney friend of O'Brien's who wished to remain anonymous. "People don't like to have their noses rubbed in their own hypocrisy or to be reminded that our standard of living rests on the exploitation of low-wage labor half a world away."
Or even over on the other side of Taft in Freedmen's Town, where you hear of a different Tim O'Brien. Lenwood Johnson smiles at mention of his name and calls him "a gentrifier, but the good kind." Seated on her front porch overlooking a notorious drug corner, septuagenarian Ola Mae Kennedy positively fawns over O'Brien.
"Tim's a nice man, I can tell you that. He's kind-hearted. He tries to help the community all he can. He tries hard, but you know when you try hard, things don't always come out right for you. But he don't give up. He's a good neighborhood worker, uh-huh. And everybody around here likes Tim."
Kennedy, who occasionally babysits O'Brien's daughter, cites the many errands O'Brien helps people run, including for Kennedy and her handicapped daughter. O'Brien says his studies are often interrupted by impromptu mercy missions, giving carless people rides and the like.
It's perhaps a good thing for all involved that O'Brien is on schedule to get his Ph.D. next spring. Everyone would win. He would have more time to spend helping people and less to stir up trouble at school. The trouble is, O'Brien might not get to enjoy being a doctor of history very long. Early this fall, he was diagnosed with stage four melanoma, and there's an 86 percent chance he won't live five more years.
"I know I'm gonna beat this," he says. "My brother tells me to think of it as a social justice campaign. And I've gotta win."
The seeds of both social activism and antiauthoritarianism were sown early in O'Brien's life. O'Brien was raised in State College, Pennsylvania, where his dad worked as the field alumni director for Penn State. O'Brien's mother, like his father, Irish-American and staunchly Catholic, was a homemaker who was deeply involved in the Catholic Church's social justice issues. When O'Brien was about seven, his mother took him to a migrant workers' camp. "I saw kids picking tomatoes, I saw shacks with single light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, and all these flies," O'Brien says. When you are seven or eight years old, that makes a big impact. And it wasn't that our mom said, 'We're white, we're middle-class and we are privileged.' She just said, 'This is the way the world is.'"
Around the same time, O'Brien was floored by the movie In the Heat of the Night — both Sidney Poitier's performance and that of Ray Charles on the title song. "I remember sitting on my couch in my pajamas, and watching that and thinking, 'Wow. What a fucked-up world we live in.' And that music got to me too." In fact, O'Brien credits his love of black music with setting him on the path to becoming a scholar of African-American studies.
O'Brien's father, a former Navy man, was an authoritarian, and O'Brien started getting in trouble in high school, which he didn't care for. "Where I was from, it was all just hillbillies, jocks and heads," O'Brien remembers. "Fuck that high school scene."
One night he came home late from a high school basketball game and there was a police car in the driveway. There had been a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood, and the cops had come by to ask O'Brien's dad for consent to search his son's room. He gave it, and while they didn't find any swag, they did find O'Brien's rolling papers and bongs. Soon enough, after a final dispute with his dad, O'Brien had moved out. Before he was 18, he was attending an alternative high school and had his own apartment and job as a dishwasher.
After getting the boot from his school for missing a mandatory meeting, O'Brien cast his lot in with a cousin from Cleveland, a former factory worker who punched his ticket off the assembly line by purchasing a Kemah shrimp boat. O'Brien hired on as a deckhand and moved south, picking up a GED somewhere along the way. After another stint as an industrial painter in the Ship Channel area, O'Brien resumed his academic career, first at Southwest Texas State and later at Penn State, where, by then well into his thirties, he acquired an undergrad degree in economics in 1995.
Three years later he was back in Houston and at a loose end, so he signed on as an English teacher in Korea. While there he met and fell in love with Kyong Mi, a Korean and fellow English teacher. "I didn't have a problem with Korean culture, other than me being an ugly American and trying to take my American values there." It was also there that he first started having trouble with his skin. He remembers getting a "spot" excised from his back while there, and warmly recalls that the whole procedure cost about ten dollars plus a buck-fifty for his follow-up prescription.
After returning to Houston in 2001, O'Brien got a job as an entry-level paralegal with Baker Botts. A former attorney with the firm said that O'Brien was a good clerk there. Two years later, O'Brien moved to Freedmen's Town, taking advantage of an opportunity to purchase a subsidized home for low-income buyers, and shortly after that, he entered grad school, living in part off his wife's earnings as a claims adjuster and translator.
His new surroundings provided his conspiratorial mind free rein to run wild. The oldest of Houston's African-American neighborhoods, Freedmen's Town has long been the most embattled, thanks to its prime location in the shadows of downtown's skyscrapers. Developers have long seen the area's brick streets and ramshackle, century-old shotgun shacks as an inexcusable, poverty-stricken, drug- and crime-infested blot on the landscape of otherwise prosperous Westside, Inner Loop Houston. Attempts to clear Freedmen's Town and replace it with some combination of upscale condos and a park go back to the 1970s, and are pretty much ongoing today, as the area continues its transformation into and re-branding as Midtown.
O'Brien sees it outside his front door every day. That fight is real, and Johnson's role in salvaging hundreds of homes in Allen Parkway Village was heroic, the strategic political street-fighting techniques he employed and later taught to O'Brien masterful.
It's when O'Brien takes those techniques across town to UH that he can seem both cruel and, at times, ridiculous, such as when he launched a grim, long campaign, which eventually included a formal public information request, to open the faculty- and staff-only (including funded grad students) restrooms on the fifth floor of UH's Agnes Arnold Hall to all grad students.
"They're continuing to give [bathroom] keys to a favored class," he snarled to the Press in 2005. "When people put barricades in front of me to get my education, I will knock that barricade down...I'm studying African-American history about people getting hung and all that injustice, and they're doing the same thing, even though it's minor."
Four years later, O'Brien had a more substantial cause on his hands, though the resulting tableau was just as surreal as his campaign to liberate the fifth-floor toilets.
This past June, O'Brien organized a street protest at the Clear Lake home of Emily Messa, UH's assistant vice president for university services and vice president for finance and administration. Students for Fair Trade and O'Brien wanted Messa to make UH an all-fair-trade-coffee campus — his group had already pressured the school into making fair-trade coffee an option — and give the Aramark workers in the school's employ a raise to more than $10 an hour.
In YouTube footage of the event, O'Brien is seen thundering into a microphone: "I wanna be at home with my lovely wife and my three-year-old daughter this Saturday morning, but I'm not, because this woman treats her workers at my school like they are slaves!" The street behind him is lined with two-story Brady Bunch houses set back behind lush green lawns. His hair is long and wavy in the early summer humidity. "They are not slaves! They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect!"
As O'Brien's supporters — several UH students and a few members of the People's Party (Houston's Black Panthers) — holler support, a man dressed in a black smock and face-concealing Zapatista-style mask mills around looking like Spider-Man dipped in ink. "This woman who lives there doesn't treat those people with respect!" O'Brien shouts.
Meanwhile, Messa's neighbor, a tall, balding white man in a Houston Texans shirt, smiles in disgust at the proceedings. As O'Brien's rhetoric continues, the neighbor engages one of his supporters in a somewhat heated though hardly livid conversation and starts meandering toward O'Brien, the activist's supporters blocking his way.
"Just because they may have brown skin, black skin, or may be low-income white people does not mean they are not human beings!" O'Brien says into the mike. Meanwhile, the neighbor starts arguing — less in real anger or menace than in bemused annoyance — with the man in black.
"Excuse me, sir! Get your hands off my brother!" O'Brien yells into the mike. Watching the footage, you can feel the tension ratcheting up exponentially with O'Brien's every word. "He wants us to go to jail because he's white and we're in his neighborhood! Get your hands off my brother! Get your hands off my sister!"
Eventually the confrontation fizzles, and O'Brien continues his harangue. He seems almost disappointed things didn't get physical.
Clayton Lust, a history teacher at Houston Community College and a fellow UH Ph.D. candidate, believes things like this protest typify O'Brien's modus operandi. "The thing is, I agree with him about a lot of things. I am in favor of fair trade. I am against sweatshops. I think that African-American history should be a degree program and not just a certification program. Those are great and fine issues. It's just that the way he goes about pursuing those goals is terrible."
Lust once blogged that O'Brien was "one of the most reprehensible people" he's ever met, and he still stands by that assessment today. So strong is Lust's animosity, he once preferred to office in a conference room rather than next to O'Brien. In Lust's view, O'Brien's ends — social justice — are far from justified by his vicious, bullying, racially-charged means. Lust even thinks that O'Brien will stoop so low as to use his own daughter as a human shield. "Who's gonna punch him when he's got his kid with him?" he asks.
And then Lust brings up the NAACP incident. In the spring of 2007, the UH chapter of the civil rights organization invited Students for Fair Trade to take part in a meeting. It was assumed that O'Brien would discuss the hard lot of African coffee workers. Instead, according to Lust, O'Brien "used his platform to launch a diatribe against UH's African American Studies program."
Lust claims that O'Brien went so far as to call UH's African American Studies director Dr. James Conyers "a house nigger." Lust admits on his blog that the incident was murky. He and another grad student interviewed several people who were at the meeting, and one said O'Brien definitely called "someone a house nigger," while another "did not hear O'Brien utter the actual words, but that the message O'Brien conveyed through the context of the rest of his remarks was consistent with him uttering the epithet." A third source claimed that Conyers was heard to say that O'Brien did say it. (Conyers did not respond to a detailed e-mail from the Press about the incident.)
O'Brien denies saying it, though in another context, he will say that he did once call former Houston city councilwoman Ada Edwards a race traitor, albeit "in a nice, academic, middle-class white-guy kinda way." As for the NAACP meeting, O'Brien says he merely gave a PowerPoint presentation lamenting the lack of a degreed African-American studies program and included a portrayal of a "bourgeoisie black" attacking a fiery black leader. O'Brien grants that he did point out what he perceived as Conyers's weak track record as director of the African American Studies program. "He's been there five or six years," O'Brien says. "If the football coach loses every game for five or six years, you might conclude he was part of the problem. So I just pointed that out, but my skin is white and their skin" — meaning that of both Conyers and his supporters at the meeting — "was black."
O'Brien says that some members of the school's NAACP branch started "pushing back" in defense of Conyers. That was when Lenwood Johnson jumped in the fray, O'Brien says, and Johnson somehow turned the debate to the merits of their nemesis Jackson Lee, whom he called a "house negro." O'Brien claims he only "echoed" that remark, and that neither he nor Johnson used the "N-word." He says that those who claim he did are out to smear him, some because they resent a white guy critiquing black culture.
O'Brien says he was the lone white person in a room with 50 or 60 black people, and adds that he brought both Johnson and a young black female guest with him. "I shouldn't say I brought her," he says in an aside. "I was trying to get her interested in African-American history and she's more interested in stereotypical things. She is not an activist." Perhaps it was the same girl Lust once observed O'Brien hectoring for not being black enough. Lust says O'Brien even told the girl that he was blacker than her. "You can't do that," Lust says. "O'Brien may have had a rough life and a lot of problems, but in no way could he understand what it's like to be black."
You hear it again and again from people in O'Brien's world. "The guy thinks he's black." O'Brien denies any such thing. "I'm proud of being born white Irish Catholic. I am very interested in Irish history, Northern Ireland, all that kinda stuff, but my chosen discipline is African-American history. I don't want to be anything other than a middle-aged white guy getting a Ph.D. in black history. I am proud of what I am and I always tell people, 'Whatever you are, you should be interested in that.' But there's a lot of stuff on Northern Irish history already."
Lust and others who criticize his tactics and his perceived faux blackness, O'Brien claims, are just trying to divert attention from the issues. "Is it a good or bad thing that there are kids ten years old in the Ivory Coast being forced to pick cocoa beans for our chocolate?" he continues, now fully atop his soapbox. "We're not talkin' about Tim O'Brien and five undergraduates coming to the president's office with a sign. You can tell me all fuckin' day that you don't like my tactics, but I don't care about that. I only care about the issues."
He also says he "considers the source" when evaluating his critics. "If Lenwood Johnson told me, 'Tim, you did X, Y and Z wrong,' I would say thanks and take that criticism constructively and use it in my campaign," he says. On the other hand, those UH muckety-mucks don't know squat, he says. "Those people have not lived it," he says. "So what, you're the whatever title at the University of Houston," he says. "You're taking all this money from this corporate shithole. You're not doing anything with your life. The criticism is not valid."
Lust points out that many who have borne the brunt of O'Brien's wrath are not recipients of largesse, be it from a "corporate shithole" of a university or not. On his blog, Lust wrote that he has seen O'Brien "treat people from the IT department here with quite less than the humanity he demands be paid to coffee growers and slave laborers at sweatshops."
O'Brien is also not above berating secretaries if he perceives them to be protecting their bosses from him. One such unlucky receptionist was Juany Jimenez, secretary to UH President Renu Khator. According to an official statement Jimenez gave to the university as part of a disciplinary action against O'Brien, on June 2, 2008, O'Brien and his daughter entered the office and he asked about the status of an e-mailed invitation sent to Khator by Fourth Ward activist Gladys House, Ola Mae Kennedy's daughter. Jimenez also stated that O'Brien wanted to speak to Theresa Singletary, another employee in Khator's office. Jimenez told O'Brien that Theresa was gone for the day, whereupon O'Brien allegedly became "very angry," "rude" and "disruptive." He wanted to know why his groups received prompt responses when they contacted Khator, while House's African-American group went ignored for two weeks. Jimenez stated that she "very nice and polite" suggested that House follow up on the request herself, whereupon O'Brien "very angry screamed at me and said NO SHE IS NOT GOING TO CALL THAT'S WHY I'M HERE FOR." Jimenez said she couldn't help him; she wasn't familiar with the request. According to Jimenez, O'Brien went on to say that Khator's office was full of ignorant people. "Every time I try to talk to him and say something he cut me off," Jimenez stated. "[H]e made me feel intimidated and scare because he was standing not in front of my desk but on the side."
Trudy Barrett, another secretary in the same office, was a witness to the incident. In her statement, she labeled O'Brien a bully. "He is especially abusive when no-one of authority is in the office," she stated, and added that O'Brien was making theirs a "hostile work environment" and went on to say that "we cringe every time we see or hear him on our floor." Even she put in a good word for his organizations: "I may agree with some of [their] message." But then there's that common refrain: "[But] I abhor his tactics."
Two weeks later, O'Brien and his daughter returned to the same office, and a similar scene unfolded. This time the issue was fair-trade coffee and O'Brien was accompanied by a Houston Chronicle reporter and about ten students, some carrying a giant coffee bean. O'Brien demanded to see Khator. Jimenez told him she was away, and the activist persisted. Eventually Jimenez hit the panic button, which quickly brought three campus cops to the scene. O'Brien branded this a typical response; UH brass would rather muzzle students than listen to them. Later in the day, Jimenez stated, O'Brien returned to the office and accused Jimenez of stealing his daughter's missing backpack. "I don't appreciate being accused of stealing," Jimenez noted in her statement.
Nor is it likely that Jimenez appreciated being sued. In one of his suits, O'Brien accused her along with Barrett of filing "backdated and false statements" about the incidents in Khator's office which were later used to support what he alleges are "false disciplinary charges" that could have brought expulsion.
Which is exactly what many in the history department, including "Dr. George," would love to have seen. Many of them say they live in genuine fear of O'Brien. "His temper has been displayed publicly," George says. "People are edgy." George says that he has even raised the specter of the Virginia Tech shooting spree in talking to the UH attorneys who have responded to O'Brien's lawsuits, to no avail. As to how O'Brien has managed to continue as a grad student with his thick file of disciplinary actions, including numerous violations of probation, George blames the school's lawyers, whom he calls "uncaring, utterly incompetent and horrific."
As ever, O'Brien still maintains the charges are phony. If he scares people, it's only as a means toward enacting justice. "What have those people accomplished?" O'Brien asks of his foes at UH. "Are they out in the streets trying to change the world? I don't think so. They're on the sidelines saying, 'Tim O'Brien's an asshole.' You know what? I'm trying to change the world."
Lenwood Johnson lives and works in a shotgun-double in the Fourth Ward. The veteran activist's spartan office is literally packed to the rafters with the ghosts of Allen Parkway Village, the housing project he worked so long and hard to save through most of the '80s and half of the '90s. In the end, he scored a partial victory and staved off redevelopment for some but not all of the impoverished African Americans who called the project home. Other than boxes of files and piles of old newspapers and a few computers and printers, there's not much besides a Marlboro 100-filled ashtray in Johnson's bare-bones command center. His life is his cause and his cause is his life, and O'Brien now stands united with Johnson in both.
And perhaps their greatest mutual nemesis is Jackson Lee, who trounced Johnson when he ran for Congress in 2002's Democratic primary. Johnson believes that Jackson Lee's entire career is based on Republican money. She was funded by the GOP when she unseated Craig Washington in the '90s, Johnson alleges, and has been beholden to them ever since.
Since their meeting shortly after O'Brien moved to the Fourth Ward in 2003, O'Brien has become Johnson's protégé. "I think he's picked up some of what we used to call 'O.J.T.' — on-the-job training, in organizing," Johnson says of O'Brien. "I think he has learned, number one, that if you go to this door and it doesn't open, you go to the next door up. Two is persistence. You have to understand that it took from 1980 to 1996 to get where we are with Allen Parkway Village."
Johnson believes he has taught O'Brien media savvy and the art of embarrassing officials publicly. "You shine a light on what someone's doing so they can't operate in the darkness," Johnson says. "We had to snatch Mickey Leland from his safe haven and make him stand up. We did that in a number of ways, and I think Tim has learned to jerk people's strings that way."
Leland, Johnson points out, had a claim to fame as a champion of the poor. "That makes it easier for poor folks to reach out and snatch 'em back," he says. "But if they've never had that reputation, it's almost impossible."
As, he says, is the case with Jackson Lee. "Sheila Jackson Lee has no claim to fame for helping poor people."
O'Brien has utterly absorbed Johnson's sour views on the congresswoman, not to mention many of the elder man's views on life. Asked if he considered Johnson a father figure, O'Brien says no, that he's more of a mentor, but then later adds that Johnson's message and his dad's message were much the same: "Stand up and fight, don't just go along to get along."
O'Brien claims he won the congresswoman's undying enmity on November 6, 2006, the day Fourth Ward's Friendship Baptist Church burned down. O'Brien lived directly across the street. This was the second Fourth Ward church fire in as many years and O'Brien says he angrily told Jackson Lee, who was on the scene, face-to-face that she needed to do something about the blazes. "Bethel went down and you didn't do nothin' about it," O'Brien says he told the congresswoman. "My family almost got killed tonight. You never do nothin' for nobody. People are gonna get killed. You need to do something."
He also says he added that he was a UH grad student and that her doings figured much in his studies. "I told her I was writing a book about the neighborhood, and that I knew what she'd been doing," he says.
Just over two years ago, another spot appeared on O'Brien's back, this one about the size of his pinky. O'Brien didn't have insurance, so he hoped it would just go away, but it only grew. By November of 2007, it was the size of a doorknob. O'Brien's wife told him it had to go, and off he went to Ben Taub, where, after a daylong wait, a doctor told him he needed to see a doctor. "I said, 'Well, you're wearing a white suit, and it says Baylor College of Medicine on it. And you're gonna tell me I need a doctor? I oughta punch you in the fuckin' mouth. You got a scalpel? Get busy. I got this doorknob on my back.'"
Although he was a long way from South Korea's socialized medicine and the operation cost him more than $3,000 cash, O'Brien was lucky that time: The growth was nonmalignant. But at the same time, O'Brien's dad was fighting a losing battle against cancer. After their falling-out in his teenage years, the two O'Briens had patched things up. "My father was proud of my activism and chosen field of studies," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Although he wished there would be less drama, especially with UH and their interference with my Ph.D., he always taught and encouraged me to never back down from a confrontation."
The elder O'Brien told his son to do whatever he had to do to attain his goals and never compromise his values, to stick to his guns whatever the cost. "The last two days I spent with him in April before he passed, we went over that in detail," O'Brien wrote. "I wanted and got reassurance from him that he was OK with the way I lived my life. He said to keep fighting...there was never any suggestion from him to give up being an activist to make it easier for my family and I."
Three months later, O'Brien would be dealing with cancer himself. While staying with friends on a research trip to Austin, O'Brien found a lump in his armpit while showering. On returning to Houston, he visited a clinic for low-income patients. The doctor gave him some blood tests, told him he didn't have lymphoma and charged him $200 for the visit. Two weeks later, O'Brien received a letter telling him to "take no action." O'Brien was hugely relieved, although the letter did tell him to see a doctor if the lump was still there in two months.
And it was. A subsequent visit to a dermatologist revealed that it was melanoma, and later visits to other doctors uncovered the fact that the cancer cells were now shot through his lungs.
"At first, I cried a lot," he says. "I didn't get angry. I cried. I just went through this with my dad. But then it's quickly to practicality. I am a practical person. I don't have much money. I've got like $18,000 in my retirement from two years working at Baker Botts. All of my wife's resources have gone toward my Ph.D. and that was a bad gamble. She's not gonna be able to benefit. But that's the worst-case scenario and I'm thinking positive."
But he does sometimes give in to dark thoughts. Looming large in his mind is the fate of his wife and child should he lose his battle. Until the birth of his daughter, O'Brien had always figured that his wife could return home to Korea should he die or they get divorced, but now that she has a half-American child, that is no longer such an easy option. Korean culture still openly frowns on race-mixing, and half-American kids there face years of taunts. "They would be treated like dogs," O'Brien says.
What's more, O'Brien's treatment would be at Ben Taub. O'Brien calls his experiences there "the Ben Taub Shuffle," and says that since his diagnosis, he has become indigent. "They have drained all my resources, and now I have a Gold Card." True to form, he is battling all the way through, confronting nurses and doctors he perceives to be treating him shabbily or perfunctorily.
"You gotta be strong," he says. "I am a fighter. I am too busy with my dissertation, fighting my social justice battles and enjoying my life...I don't have fuckin' time to sit around crying. My minister told me, 'When you have a pity party, the Lord leaves the room.'"
Looking back on his life, he is proudest of winning the respect of people like Johnson and Gladys House, the woman whose activism landed Freedmen's Town on the National Register of Historic Places. As for regrets, he claims to have none: "I don't live like that," he wrote in an e-mail to the Press. "It's not a productive way to think. My friend Peter Case has a lighthearted song called 'Coulda Shoulda Woulda' which comes to mind with your question. Life is too short to regret what you did not do...today you're alive, so go out and do something." And he says a verse from a song by Scott "Top Ten" Kempner is also bouncing around his head a lot these days: "Some people live for the money, some people live for the fame. There are those who like to play for whatever rewards might be paid, but I think the fun's in the game."
And true to form, he didn't take his original misdiagnosis lying down. He smiles as he recounts the following story:
Shortly after getting the grim word of his melanoma, a likely death sentence, he marched back to the clinic that told him to "take no action" and demanded, and received, his $200 back.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.