I had lunch with a remarkable man last week. Speaking with 88-year-old George O’Hara wasn’t just inspiring, it was life-changing. It was Forest Park-shaking.
I first heard George’s name from comedian/activist Dick Gregory, when I was face-to-face with him on April 13, 2014. Gregory had immediately recalled assisting a Forest Park family in 1975 and said, “George O’Hara helped on that.”
O’Hara has been face-to-face with plenty of illustrious figures from the Civil Rights Movement and counts himself as Gregory’s best friend. He was with Gregory and his family, on Feb. 2, 2015, when the pioneering black comedian finally got his Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
O’Hara and Gregory seem unlikely friends. George is a self-described South Side Irishman, who grew up in a hotbed of racism. His friends and family considered Martin Luther King to be the devil. Curious George, however, decided to hear the devil speak. After Dr. King finished his speech, George sat down with him for an hour-long conversation. King also took the time to introduce George to 23-year-old Jesse Jackson.
This meeting changed George’s life, and he decided to stop being a South Side Irishman. He became a West Side Irishman and got involved in the Civil Rights Movement.
His friendship with Dick Gregory began at Mister Kelly’s nightclub. Gregory was appearing for a week and O’Hara was in the audience every night. Gregory approached to ask why. George told him he was the most remarkable speaker he had ever heard. Gregory invited him to his dressing room and the rest is unlikely-friendship history.
O’Hara also befriended Louis Farrakhan, the late Rev. Willie Barrow and Muhammad Ali. He traveled the world with Ali’s entourage. Because they were Muslim, they did not enjoy George’s favorite hobby: drinking. But he recalled sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Paris when Ali’s dad approached him and said, “I’m a Christian, you’re Irish, let’s get a drink.”
When he wasn’t crusading for civil rights, O’Hara was making a good living as a Sears executive. Being in charge of records and albums brought George in contact with many of the stars of the day. To promote sales, Sears asked him to reach out to young black people. That’s how he connected with Fred Hampton.
O’Hara recalled helping the black family who moved to Forest Park in the 1970s and said he really respected the homeowner, Ezra Buckner. He agreed to give us a filmed interview about that story and said our documentary had become the biggest priority in his life.
It’s a riot hanging out with George O’Hara. He dresses in such a dapper way, suit and red tie (“My uniform”) and speaks kindly with anyone who has a pulse. He gave me lessons in patience and forgiveness. After all, George had helped Fr. Dismas Clark (“The Hoodlum Priest”) with his prison ministry, so he knows about bringing forgiveness to despondent souls in Stateville.
He also practices it. O’Hara was driving home from the church of his good friend, Fr. George Clements (Holy Angels), when he was stopped by two Chicago cops who questioned his presence in a black neighborhood. The officers expressed some racist sentiments. George later called Clements for advice. The priest asked if George had gotten their badge numbers. When he said yes, Clements advised him to “find out who they are and take them to lunch.”
As for patience, George taught me how I can live in the moment. I tried it this week. When I woke up overstressed as usual, I began living in the moment. I enjoyed a stress-free day.
Thanks, George. Next time, lunch is on you.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.