12/28/2011 08:00:00

Former Caltech Public Relations VP Dies

PASADENA, Calif.—Bob O'Rourke, of Pasadena, the former vice president for public relations at the California Institute of Technology, died Dec. 27 of complications following a lung transplant. He was 72.

O'Rourke led Caltech's Office of Public Relations from 1986 to 2009, first as director, then as Caltech's first assistant vice president for PR, and finally as vice president for PR. Since 2009 he had been senior advisor for external affairs to Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau.

O'Rourke's charismatic personality and passion gave the community a human connection to Caltech.

"Bob O'Rourke was a one-man human genome project. He seemed to be connected to half the people in the world. He left us as he lived among us: a radiant and energetic nucleus of friendships and optimism," said NBC's Tom Brokaw.

Nobel laureate David Baltimore, president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech, noted "Bob was the consummate public relations person for an academic enterprise. He loved people while he appreciated the life of the mind, making him the perfect front man for the generally poorly social folks who inhabit academia."

"Bob had a passion for people and for bringing down the barriers that keep them from communicating with each other," said NBC4 reporter Conan Nolan. "He was a bridge-builder who helped those with the answers share it with the rest of us. If we all know a little more about why the earth moves below our feet it's because Bob shook it out of the tree of knowledge."  

Even friends from other institution of higher education saw the unique talents that O'Rourke brought to his position. "In his time at Caltech, he tried to put a face to the name of the school—and succeeded in becoming the Institute's face to the outside world. Rarely could you mention Caltech without the next question being, 'Do you know Bob O'Rourke?'" said Jim Ellis, dean of the USC Marshall School of Business, who knew O'Rourke for 18 years.

O'Rourke involved Caltech in community activities and brought the public to campus in myriad ways. He established Caltech's first visitor's center and developed the Caltech edition of KPCC radio's popular "AirTalk" show. He was also the force behind "The Loh Down on Science," a syndicated science radio minute heard on KPCC and in nearly 200 countries; Curious, an award-winning four-part public television program that included Caltech research; the Institute's annual Biology Forum; and the DuBridge Distinguished Lecture Series, which brought to campus such notables as Walter Cronkite, Warren Buffett, and Nobel Peace Prize–recipient John Hume.

"Bob O'Rourke's passing is a loss to Caltech that is incalculable," said Caltech alumnus and "The Loh Down on Science" host Sandra Tsing-Loh. "I feel his loss as deeply as I would the loss of a member of my own family. One of the wonderful things about Caltech is that it has always had a maverick, irreverent, and out-of-the-box spirit, and I think many of Bob O'Rourke's projects reflected this."

Not only did he involve the Institute in the community, he encouraged Caltech students to learn more about the world around them. Former Massachusetts governor, Democratic presidential candidate, and O'Rourke friend Michael Dukakis said O'Rourke invited him to Caltech to speak to students and faculty. "He wanted to make sure all those brilliant kids had the chance to listen to debate and discussion about political and public affairs. It will be a long time before we meet anyone else who has the combination of smarts, energy, and wonderful sense of humor that made up Bob's persona."

Born and raised in Beverly, MA, O'Rourke's accent and love of the Boston area remained a strong presence throughout his life. Before moving to Pasadena, he was press secretary to Boston University president John Silber. Prior to that, he worked in public relations at Wisconsin's West Allis Memorial Hospital and the University of Wisconsin Center for Health Sciences, and at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. He began his career as an Air Force air traffic controller.

O'Rourke was a member of the Public Relations Society of America, and during his tenure at Caltech, the Public Relations department received many awards for both special projects and ongoing publications.

He served in numerous community organizations, including the Pasadena Chamber of Commerce, the Pasadena World Cup Strategic Planning Committee, Pasadena Forward, the Los Angeles World Affairs Council, and the Breakfast Forum. In 1987 he was one of the founders of the Pasadena Pops Orchestra.

Diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2006, O'Rourke found little information about the disease until he discovered the Coalition for Pulmonary Fibrosis (CPF). The Culver City–based organization provided him with resources to cope with the disease. He, in turn, helped increase awareness of the illness that was responsible for the deaths of Marlon Brando, Evel Knievel, and Robert Goulet. IPF kills as many people a year (40,000) as breast cancer.

During the last two years of his life O'Rourke gave numerous media interviews about pulmonary fibrosis on National Public Radio and KPCC, in the Los Angeles Times and the Pasadena Star-News. He also made an appearance on NBC's "TODAY" show.

"When we reported on 'TODAY' about his IPF and the others who were suffering from it, it lit up the NBC switchboard and websites with unsolicited comments, such as, 'What a shame. I didn't know him but he seems like such a good guy.' So, even as he battled this maddening disease, Bob was making new friends and attracting new admirers. We now all have to pick up where he left off. It is the least we can do to honor this good and true friend," said Brokaw.

Ironically, speaking to the media when the spotlight was on him was incredibly challenging for O'Rourke. "Next to fighting this disease, speaking on camera is the most difficult thing I've had to do in my life," he said. "I've always been the man behind the man speaking on camera, but I'm doing this because if I can make headway in bringing awareness to this disease, the payoff could be tremendous."

O'Rourke and his wife Sandy received the Francis Cabral Humanitarian Award from the CPF for significantly improving awareness of pulmonary fibrosis and for being a "beacon of hope and inspiration to all those suffering from the disease."

Mishka Michon, CEO of the CPF, said, "Bob quickly went to work communicating with everyone he knew about PF. He asked friends to join my organization's honorary board. He showed an astounding level of courage in the face of this resolutely progressive disease, and determination to shine a light on it for the sake of all future patients, with no expectation of any recompense except the satisfaction of doing the right thing."

Caltech Trustee Gayle Wilson, California's first lady during her husband Pete Wilson's tenure as the state's governor, appreciated his optimistic outlook. "Bob was a wonderful friend with such a positive, 'can-do' attitude. Through my association with Caltech, I knew Bob to be such a creative thinker and a solutions-oriented person, whose huge Rolodex of friends he was willing to tap into to help others."

Harry Gray, Caltech's Arnold O. Beckman Professor of Chemistry and the founding director of the Beckman Institute, echoed the sentiments of many of O'Rourke's other friends. "You just had to love him! He was such great fun. He made everyone around him feel great. He always picked up my spirits with his wonderful joy of life and his Irish sense of humor. We all were so lucky to have known him."

Current Caltech president Chameau remarked, "Bob came to visit with me in Atlanta as soon as I was announced as the new president. I quickly realized that his love and excitement for Caltech was infectious. His energy and Irish charm played a big role in spreading the word about Caltech over the past 20 years. Everybody I met in Pasadena and LA knew Bob and associated Caltech with him. He was the Caltech Ambassador Extraordinaire."

Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech manages for NASA, said O'Rourke was "a special friend and a superb advisor on how to reach out to the public and the media to tell them what Caltech and JPL are all about, and why what we do is important for society at large."

O'Rourke is survived by his wife, Sandy, his children, Mary (Tom Cooley), Dan (Donna), Paul (Lee), and Beth; his stepchildren Todd Bennett (Melanie) and Ashley (Steve Carlton), and his grandchildren Kate, Jami, Jake, Claire, Liam, Luke, Ryan, and Madden. He is predeceased by his sister, Peggy, and his brothers Jimmy and Jack.

A Mass will be said at 2 p.m., Jan. 4 at Holy Family Church, 1501 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena, and a reception will follow.

The family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in O'Rourke's memory to UCLA Medical Science Development. Please make checks payable to UC Regents and memo Dr. Belperio. Send donations to UCLA Medical Science Development; Attention: Nushie Gaharib; 10945 Le Conte Avenue, Suite 3132, Los Angeles, 90095.

Donations could also be made to the Coalition for Pulmonary Fibrosis, 10866 W. Washington Blvd #343, Culver City, CA 90232.

Written by Kathy Svitil