A Tribute to Donal C. O’Brien, a Conservationist for the Ages
The National Audubon Society celebrates the enduring legacy of a devout bird lover.
Donal's determination kept him going, even during his recent illnesses. "He lived a very full life," says Olson. "He never lost his belief that he could influence outcomes. And he finished the race well, passionate and committed, 100 per cent with his heart and head even as his body was breaking down." Whether it was the escalating loss of native prairie and wetlands in the Dakotas or the draining of wetlands in North Carolina, Olson was setting up meetings between Donal and Audubon conservation leaders from around the country till Donal's final days.
Donal served as chief legal counsel for the Rockefeller Family and Associates, and was a partner in the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley and McCloy. In that capacity, he got to know Jackie Robinson, an enthusiastic supporter of Nelson Rockefeller. After Robinson retired from baseball, Donal, a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan, helped secure him a job at Chock Full o'Nuts, and the two sometimes enjoyed their commute to Manhattan together on the train from their homes in Connecticut.
Three governors appointed Donal as chairman and a member of the Connecticut Council on Environmental Quality. As chairman of the Atlantic Salmon Federation, he spearheaded efforts to remove dams blocking the passage of spawning fish. He was also the founding chairman of BirdLife International, a global network of conservation organizations focused on birds in 110 countries and territories worldwide. Under his aegis, Audubon became BirdLife's U.S. partner. A master decoy carver, he was the U.S. National Amateur Champion twice. His carvings of puffins helped Audubon's program to restore breeding colonies of Atlantic puffins to the coast of Maine after a 100-year absence.
"I remember well Steve Kress going to Newfoundland in the dark of night and taking the baby Puffins from their nest and bringing them down to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay," Donal wrote his friend and fellow conservation leader, Nathaniel Reed weeks before his death. "I also remember Kathy Blanchard painting the Puffin decoys and waiting for two years for the Puffins to return to the Eastern Egg Rock. Can you imagine the excitement that Steve and Kathy had when they looked out and saw the returning Puffins, after two years. How thrilled they must have been. This has got to be one of the great conservation stories of all time."
Donal is survived by his wife, Katie, chair emeritus of the Audubon Connecticut board, four grown children, and 11 grandchildren. The memorial service will take place on September 18 at 11am at the First Prebyterian Church in New Canaan, Connecticut.