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John O'Brien is relentless. He will do almost anything for money. He fear-mongers and plays the guilt card. He's groveled and threatened everything from lawsuits to tears. He's flagrantly offered bribes. He's offered his services as a slave, a personal stooge or as the guy who will do your dirtiest work, from insulting your boss to breaking up with your girlfriend. He will sell his services for almost anything, as long as it's legal.

He's not afraid to play the fool, just so long as you send a check, payable to "The Human Race."

He's not the fastest runner in the annual run/walk, which in 29 years has raised $12.5 million for charity. But what John O'Brien lacks in speed, he makes up for in cold cash. Over two decades, he has raised more money than any single race entrant. When he lopes across the finish line at Santa Rosa's Slater Middle School on May 7, his lifetime total will top $300,000, almost all of which has gone to the American Cancer Society.

He occasionally fails to make No. 1, sometimes slipping to 2 or 3, but his cumulative total is unmatched.

"Nobody has come near to that. He runs this fund-raising thing like a small business," said Padi Selwyyn, spokeswoman for the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County, which is putting on its 30th Human Race this year.

Executive Director Eunice Valentine calls O'Brien "a cult hero for the cause."

At 6-feet, 6-inches tall and a Lincolnesque 185 pounds, the Nebraska native, who even as a boy always did for others, towers above the competition. He's impossible to miss with his goofy headgear, like a giant frog hat, a werewolf mask or a wizard's cap.

A Santa Rosa attorney specializing in real estate, corporate and business law, O'Brien ran the first Human Race for sport in 1982, back when he had a young man's back and knees.

But since 1989, the 67-year-old Santa Rosan walks for dollars. Over 23 years, he has sent out 9,000 solicitations, reeling in 4,000 donors for the American Cancer Society, a cause close to his heart. O'Brien, who settled in Santa Rosa in 1975 so he could live in a place with a short commute (leaving more time for wife Cheryl and their three daughters), lost both of his parents and a sister-in-law to cancer. And during the years he has been "Top Solicitor," he became a survivor himself, beating prostate cancer eight years ago.

"Cancer is something that impacts everybody," he says, from the conference room of his law offices in Fountaingrove. "There's always a relative or a friend or a client who comes down with cancer. Unfortunately a lot of people have died. The good part is that there are so many more survivors now because there have been such advances in research, treatment and early detection. It's really encouraging to see the positive side."

He took on the cause long before it touched his own life, serving on the local board of directors of the American Cancer Society in the early '80s.

His recipe for success turns on his tour de force solicitations, which supporters eagerly anticipate for their cajoling and self-deprecating humor.

"I have continuously defied all laws of nature and have pushed my aging (now old) body over the grueling 10K race course, enduring constant pain, torture, abuse, laughs, jeers, embarrassment, etc. and often finishing with a slower time than many children, mothers pulling wagons or pushing strollers, people in wheelchairs or with walkers," he writes in this year's plea.

Then there are the "incentives" for donation levels. So far no one has grabbed at the opportunity to sponsor him as a walking billboard and friend for life for $5,000. But hundreds have received his autographed race finish photo for $50.

"Some people will give me $49 so they don't get a photo," he admits. The pictures have spread like crazy. One year he was startled at a wedding in Santa Barbara when a guest stopped him to say he recognized him from someone's refrigerator door.

Few people cash in on his outlandish incentives, sparing him embarrassment. But one year he did wear a T-shirt advertising a competing law firm. Another year, Chalk Hill and J wineries shared him, advertising one on the front of his shirt, the other on the back. And a few $500 donors have taken him up on a free hour of legal services.

Like a good politician, O'Brien rarely misses a chance to glad-hand friends, clients, colleagues and acquaintances. He maintains an ever-growing mailing list of donors and has a stash of donor envelopes in his pocket for unforeseen opportunities. He stops short only at soliciting strangers.

"If I'm at a social event or meeting and I run into somebody and realize they're not on my sucker list, I'll bring out an envelope if I think they may be open," he says with a chuckle. "Once you get on the list, it's hard to get off."

For a guy without a Facebook page, O'Brien has an enviable network collected over years of service on nonprofit boards — The Community Foundation of Sonoma County, the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, Memorial Hospital, The Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation.

For 22 years his "right arm" has been Nina Cooney, his loyal legal secretary and paralegal, who acts as business manager. She processes letters, tracks donations, sends thank-yous, acts as official photographer and walks beside him in the race.

O'Brien has missed the race just once, in 1995, when his mother was dying of breast cancer. But a team of friends and colleagues from his law firm O'Brien, Watters & Davis walked in proxy toting stick masks of O'Brien's face. Even as a no-show, he managed to be the top fund-raiser, raking in $10,180.

"Whether I'm first or 10th or even 100th, that doesn't matter," he says. "As long as I do my best in raising money for my charity. I'm planning to continue my schtick as long as I'm healthy and can do it."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.