RIP, Michael O’Connor-Clarke

A good friend of mine died on Saturday. For those who didn’t have the opportunity to meet this man, I feel compelled to tell you a bit about him.

I first met Michael O’Connor-Clarke at the Hilton New York in 1999 when we were in marketing for competing software companies. He at Hummingbird, the industry-leading document management software company, and I at iManage, the upstart nipping at Humminbird’s heels. I remember thinking it must have annoyed him that I was invited to share the stage with him; his company, after all, had more than 70% of the market, and iManage had been none too subtle in painting their product as yesterday’s technology.

But he wasn’t annoyed. No sooner had our panel wrapped up that he invited me to lunch. We hit it off, though we lost touch as our careers went in different directions. I stumbled across his blog several years later, and got reintroduced to what a cool guy he was.

And our paths crossed once again in New York, at another conference, this time in 2005. I was with FeedBurner, and Michael was at a tech company that was complementary to what we were doing. We reconnected over another lunch, and resolved that this time we’d stay in touch. We did.

We never went more than a few months over the last seven years without some e-mail exchange, and though we didn’t see each other too often, our lunch at SXSW a couple years ago was a highlight of that conference for me. By then I was at Google and he’d returned to agency life after some time with a tech firm, and we spent a good 90 minutes comparing notes about our families, our careers, and life in general.

Michael loved his job, and loved PR. He reveled in finding the story worth telling, and anyone who spends more than a few minutes browsing some of his blog posts will see a man who even loved those who practiced bad PR. (“Loved” might not quite be the right word: adored, maybe? Enjoyed? He took a perverse delight in their ineptitude, because even in their poorly targeted e-mail blasts, their terrible turn of phrase, their poor choice in tactics, there was a story there, too. Here’s but one example of countless exchanges he and I had over the years documenting this.)

This past July 4, I was driving my family north for a long vacation weekend. Early in the drive I got a call from one of my best friends, who was calling to tell me his wife had cancer. It hit me hard, and I spent much of that six hour drive predictably thinking about what’s important. Family. Friends. Legacy. As we neared our destination, it was dinner time. Rather than try to cook in the house we’d rented after a long drive, we found a local pizza joint that was open on the holiday. While I waited for our pizza to be finished, I checked my e-mail.

I didn’t recognize the name of the sender of the latest e-mail received, but I recognized the name in the subject line: Michael O’Connor-Clarke. The sender was Michael’s boss, sending to contacts in his address book, letting his extended network know that Michael was battling esophageal cancer.

Michael died Saturday, 48 years old, leaving behind a wife and three children, and an online and offline community of thousands whose lives he touched.

Last fall he and I were e-mailing about a YouTube problem a client of his was having. I asked how his family was doing, and his reply spoke volumes about who he was:

Things here are utterly wonderful, thanks. Actually in love with my job … Great team, fantastic clients, and we’re kicking 31 flavours of arse every single day. Family growing like weeds and eating us out of house and home, but all happy, healthy and (even more important) the kids all still like each other. La vita e bella.

It seems simplistic to reflect on a friend’s passing and say that we should cherish every moment, treasure the time we get with those we love. But the story of Michael’s life is, in the end, actually rather simple: love your family, find your passion, apply that passion to making others’ lives better while you can, and know that joy isn’t hard to find if you know where to look. I liked Michael the day I met him, and over the years grew to admire that here was a man who had his priorities firmly set.

Another of Michael’s friends recounted that Eamonn Clarke posted this on Michael’s Facebook page earlier today:

Enjoy life.
Hug your loved ones tight.
Be happy that he lived.
and raise a glass to him tonight

I’m raising a glass right now. Here’s to Michael, a man whose story I’ll remember for many years to come.

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