JAMES O'MEARA (1943 - 2019)

  • "Dear Molly, Joe, and the whole O'Meara family, I'm so..."
    - Evan Baily
  • "We are saddened to learn of the death of James, but..."
  • "Dear Clare and family, what an impressive and exceptional..."
    - Ginny Vaughn Hayes
  • "Jim was one of the first bikers that I met when I joined..."
    - John Metzler
Service Information
Memorial service
Saturday, Apr. 18, 2020
11:00 AM
Our Lady of Victory
4835 MacArthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC
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James Thomas O'Meara
Jim died December 18, 2019. He was born September 25, 1943 in Chicago to Irish immigrants Mary Joyce and John O'Mara, and was the fifth of their six children. His father was a fireman and his mother, as he wrote in the Washington Post in March 1979, stockpiled holy water: "Should a fire truck race within siren-hearing range, she would grab for a bottle of it and move deliberately through our house, liberally sprinkling each flammable child and room she encountered. I was never completely sure at the time whether we were being blessed or merely presoaked, should the fire eventually reach our door."

In high school, he worked several jobs to help his family, following in his father's footsteps. "Officially he was a Chicago fireman," Jim wrote in the Washington Post in August 1979, in a column to the left of George Will, "but on his days off he would go out to our garage, load the trunk of a weary Nash sedan with tools and become... a moonlight plumber. In the summertime, I would help him, cramming heavy crates of cast-iron fittings on the car's sagging rear seat, and strapping galvanized pipe to its roof." Jim drew a parallel between his dad's refusal to switch to lightweight pipes and President Carter's refusal to embrace solar power. His dad's plumbing business eventually went under, the victim of new technology; Jim warned that the United States needed to shift to renewable power for our economy and environment.

As a senior in high school in 1961, Jim was inspired by this line in John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech: "If a free society fails to help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich." After graduating from DePaul University, he joined the Peace Corps and went to the Philippines, where from 1965 to 1967 he used construction skills that had helped pay his college tuition to plan and supervise the building of a rural schoolhouse, library, and clinic.

He then went to Vietnam with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), 1967 to 1969. While he never spoke of his war experience, his daughters learned after his death, from performance reviews he had saved, that he helped some 380 defectors from North Vietnam survive in the South. He set up classes that taught people to drive, sew, grow vegetables, and raise chickens. As part of a military-civilian team in Binh Duong Province, he was often in harm's way, especially during the Tet Offensive of January 1968. The State Department gave him its Award for Heroism that year "for courageous action while under fire in Vietnam."

While on leave from Vietnam in August 1968, Jim traveled to Italy to marry Clare Lefebure, whom he had met in Chicago in 1964, when they were students at different colleges. Clare was in Italy to study piano in San Domenico. At ages 24 and 22, Jim and Clare rented a tiny Fiat 500, fetched their parents from the airport, and raced to procure a marriage license, blood test, and priest in the short time they had to get married in the music school's chapel.

After Vietnam, Clare and Jim moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he worked at the US Embassy from 1969 to 1972. During their stay, Clare gave birth to their first daughter, Molly. Upon their return to the United States, Jim used evenings, weekends, and vacations from USAID to renovate a house in Brookmont, Maryland, where Clare taught piano, Molly grew up, and daughter Megan, born in 1984, spent her first four years. In 1988, with the help of brother-in law Joe Felsl, Jim used his free time to build a new house next to the old one.

Jim's jobs at USAID took him to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. In 1983, USAID gave him its Distinguished Honor Award "for sustained distinguished service in personally resolving controversial legislative issues regarding the Caribbean Basin Initiative and United States assistance to El Salvador." As Acting Director of the Food for Peace Office from 1990 to 1992, he devised a plan to get shipments of food to Ethiopia and Djibouti, which were being stalled at the port of Assab, more quickly to those who needed it.

Jim continued his food aid career at the US Agriculture Department, where he traveled frequently to help the former states of the Soviet Union fight hunger and develop greater food security. He retired in 1999 as Director of the Emerging Markets Office of the Foreign Agricultural Service, but worked for several years afterwards as an international development consultant.

A bike commuter for decades, Jim joined several cycling groups upon retirement, including the Wednesday Irregulars, where he created and co-led tours.

He always helped neighbors in need. He led the Brookmont Civic League's negotiations with the US Army Corps of Engineers to stop a sludge treatment plant from harming the neighborhood. After September 11, 2001, Jim chose to tear out invasive vines that had been destroying native trees in and around his neighborhood. He wrote in the Washington Post in October 2002: "Slashing and uprooting seemed more appropriate responses than those being recommended at the time -- shopping, for example."

Jim leaves behind his wife of 51 years, Clare Lefebure O'Meara; daughter Megan Elizabeth O'Meara, daughter Molly and son-in-law Joe Sheehan; and grandsons Charles and William Sheehan. He is also survived by siblings John Francis O'Meara, Thomas Michael O'Meara, Ellen O'Meara Jones; and 18 nieces and nephews. Sisters Rita Bland and Mary Felsl died earlier.

All friends are welcome at Jim's memorial service on Saturday, April 18, 2020, 11 a.m., at Our Lady of Victory, 4835 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington, DC. The burial at Oak Hill in Georgetown will be private.

Jim often rode his bike in Rock Creek Park past two cemeteries: Oak Hill and its less privileged neighbor, commonly called "Mount Zion" whose story reflects the struggle of African Americans for freedom, justice, and equality. The Montgomery Street Methodist Church acquired this cemetery in 1808 for its white and black parishioners, free and enslaved. A group of African Americans left to form Mount Zion United Methodist Church, the first black church in Washington, DC, and leased the cemetery. A mutual aid society of free black women, the Female Union Band Society (FUBS), bought adjacent land to bury their members. This sacred ground also served as a refuge for freedom seekers on the Underground Railroad.

Whites started abandoning the Old Methodist Burying Ground in 1849 after Oak Hill opened. The Mount Zion-FUBS property began to fall into disrepair after burials ceased in 1950, and was sought by developers. A fifth-generation black Georgetown native and the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation intervened, won court rulings, and helped list the sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Oak Hill accepts people of all colors and faiths, and the nonprofit Mount Zion-Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park, aims to rediscover, preserve, and commemorate nearly two centuries of lost African American history.

In lieu of flowers, please donate to this inspiring effort to honor the past and educate a new generation about the tragedies of slavery and racial discrimination and the hope of a better future and a more perfect union. Make checks out to "Mt Zion-Female Union Band Historic Memorial Park," with "Jim O'Meara" in the memo line, and mail to Davis Wright Tremaine c/o John Seiver, Suite 800, 1919 Pennsylvania Ave NW Washington, DC 20006. Or donate online at www.mtzion-fubs.org/donate
Published in The Washington Post on Jan. 14, 2020
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