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John McDonnell, 60; Antiwar Activist, 'Spiritual Busybody'

June 08, 2003|Elaine Woo | Times Staff Writer

John Brian McDonnell was what one friend called a "spiritual busybody": someone who could not help but intervene in a world that saddened him with its injustices.

A former Jesuit seminarian, he entered history as the young pacifist who fasted for 37 days across the street from the White House to protest the U.S. incursion into Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The fast launched him into an unlikely but long-lasting friendship with then-National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, who wrote of McDonnell in his memoirs and mentioned him again years later at President Nixon's funeral.

McDonnell went on to become a social worker, whose unusual gift for reaching pained souls led to a lifelong vocation of helping rescue people from drug and alcohol addictions. His clients ranged from dope addicts in the slums of Philadelphia and Los Angeles to some of Hollywood's most famous stars.

Like the mythical Forrest Gump, he traveled in so many orbits that his circle of friends was audacious in its variety. He rapped easily with hoodlums and invited homeless people to use his shower, but he also talked about foreign policy with Kissinger and world peace with the Dalai Lama, who was once his house guest. Capable of swearing like a guttersnipe and reciting whole passages of William Blake or ancient Arabic poetry, McDonnell was an enchanting amalgam of contradictions.

That he loved life on the edge was apparent to anyone who knew him. He spent nights on skid row to help drunks, had been jailed many times for civil disobedience, and was nearly beaten to death some years ago in a drug-ridden Los Angeles neighborhood. He periodically drank to excess and was addicted to cigarettes, a habit that ultimately led to his death.

McDonnell died of cardiopulmonary disease and cancer May 29 at the Chalet, a nursing facility at Queen of Angels-Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center. He was 60 and is survived by a brother and a sister.

He did not go the Chalet in November merely to die, however.

"I can't die -- there's too much to do!" he told a social worker there.

Observing the neglected grounds, he became the Chalet's unofficial gardener, nurturing rosebushes, succulents and other greenery. He recruited garden helpers from among the patients, including a young gunshot victim paralyzed from the waist down who discovered through McDonnell a reason to keep living.

"He is one of a fairly small handful of people who ... has really changed people's lives through the force of his own personality," said William R. MacKaye, a former Washington Post religion editor who met McDonnell while covering the fast 33 years ago. "At the most superficial level, Brian McDonnell is like that department in Reader's Digest, 'My Most Unforgettable Character.' But he was a very worthwhile character."

McDonnell was born in Scranton, Pa., one of five children of a flamboyant criminal attorney whose alcoholism made for a dysfunctional home life. As a child, he seemed to need little sleep and consequently spent most nights reading in the family library. He especially consumed cookbooks and filled the early morning hours in the kitchen baking, a hobby that years later led to his running a restaurant in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and cooking for such celebrities as dancer Fred Astaire and actress Talia Shire.

He finished high school in Scranton, but his higher education was spotty. One of his first jobs was as a probation officer in Philadelphia, where he created a program to help alcoholics and drug addicts kick their habits.

He was teaching a course called "Love and Its Implications on Our Life Styles" at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970 when Nixon announced that U.S. troops were going into Cambodia. McDonnell condemned what he saw as an expansion of the war that would devour resources better spent on social programs at home.

Familiar with Mohandas K. Gandhi's philosophy of nonviolent protest, he moved into Lafayette Park, across from the White House, on May 3, 1970, vowing to fast until all U.S. troops left Cambodia. He sat on a blanket and talked to anyone who would listen about what he was trying to accomplish. Two others eventually joined him in the vigil.

"We're just trying to encourage people to think about a viewpoint called peace, instead of war," he told a reporter about 30 days into the fast, "nonviolence instead of violence."

At the end of each day he retired to a Quaker meetinghouse in Georgetown. One night in early June, he received a distinguished visitor, who went to see McDonnell at the suggestion of a mutual friend. It was Kissinger, Nixon's closest advisor on foreign affairs.

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