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.