A remembrance by Jim O’Brien
The date of Dan’s suicide—April 9, 1979—has always stuck in my mind. At that time it had been at least eight years since I’d seen him, at least twelve since we’d had a good visit. But he always had charisma for me, just as he did for the Carleton student voters who elected him president of the student government midway through our junior year. He was strikingly handsome, multi-talented (a leading role in a student musical one year, a starting position—left wing, as it happened—on our soccer team), and blessed with a penetrating, sometimes simplifying intellect.
I knew Dan from soccer first, then from the student government, then from our shared history major, then from living catty-corner from him in Fourth Musser our senior year. He was a voracious reader and had a Marxist world-view to make sense, as he saw it, of all the information he took in. He had a great laugh and a good though not always predictable sense of humor.
We talked about books and politics and, with John Benson and Doug Jenness (Class of ’64), we relaxed by playing a simple, old-time card game, Authors. It was a standing joke that one card, The Last of the Mohicans, was crumpled, so the other players would always know who had it.
Did we know each other? Not really. I’m guessing that women-to-women friendships formed at Carleton were deeper than those between men.
By the time we graduated, he was committed to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and that became his frame of reference. He started graduate school in history at the University of California, Berkeley, but didn’t stay long. For most of the next fifteen years he was essentially a full-time activist in the SWP, which did very important work in the movement against the Vietnam War in the mid- and late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Despite the urging of his friends in the party, he never got professional help for periodic bouts of depression.
The SWP didn’t grow as much in the ‘70s as its leaders hoped and expected. Late in the decade, the party had a change of outlook and decided that as many of its activists who could be spared from other work should take blue-collar factory jobs. Dan—the son of a Unitarian minister from suburban Boston—went to work at an aircraft factory in Houston, and from what I understand he hated it. His episodes of depression must have gone from bad to worse, still without his willingness to get help.
I’ll always remember him as he was at Carleton, and I’ll always remember how sad I was—and still am—about his passing.