Last week I drove to the Federal Building in downtown Ann Arbor, and waited while the big black security gate slid open. I got off the elevator and was greeted by my old friend, U.S. District Judge John Corbett O’Meara, wearing his customary double-breasted gray pinstriped suit, white shirt and red tie.
Two things worthy of note: 1) O’Meara celebrates his 80th birthday this week, and I wanted to talk with him about his career and his thoughts about our country. 2) If over the course of a lifetime, you succeed in having 10 friends — not acquaintances — you are very lucky, indeed, and I am lucky that John O’Meara is a friend.
He’s seen a lot over his eight decades, much of it at the intersection of politics and public service. Born and brought up in a Democratic family (possibly the only one) in Hillsdale County, O’Meara went to Notre Dame, where for three days he tried out for the football team. Later, he had much more success at other pursuits. After graduation, he joined the Navy where he was the Engineer Officer on the Navy’s first guided missile submarine. Following that, he went on to graduate from Harvard Law School: “It was either that or construction,” he said.
First, however, he did a stint in Washington, as staff assistant to the man who was widely regarded as the conscience of the U.S, Senate. “If you’re going to get engaged in politics, there’s no better way to get started than working for with Phil Hart.” O’Meara told me.
Among the men he got to know then: U.S. Senator and then President John F. Kennedy and his younger brother, Ted; Peace Corps Director R. Sargent Shriver; Neil Staebler, then chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, and G. Mennen Williams, who was elected governor of Michigan a record six times.