Former mayor’s husband dies at 87
By Donna Beth Weilenman
Dr. Paul F. O’Rourke, 87, husband of former Benicia mayor Marilyn O’Rourke, died Jan. 28 at the family home in Aptos.
Paul O’Rourke was the first director of the California State Office of Economic Opportunity and had been a public health adviser to U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and special assistant to Gov. Edmund Brown, father to the current governor.
O’Rourke was born in Cambridge, Mass., and graduated from Harvard University and its medical school. He married Marilyn Citron O’Rourke 44 years ago. She later became Benicia’s first woman mayor in 1984, serving two terms.
Early in his career, O’Rourke became an outspoken champion of equal access to health care for the underprivileged. That became his lifelong mission. In fact, O’Rourke left his successful Marin County private practice in 1959 to focus on what he considered a growing public health crisis among California’s migrant workers and others living in poverty.
Two years later, he had earned a master’s of public health degree in epidemiology at the University of California-Berkeley and had accepted his first public sector job as director of public health for Imperial County.
That agricultural county had California’s highest rate of infant mortality and tuberculosis, among other conditions that indicated residents of the area weren’t receiving basic health care. By 1963, O’Rourke was chief of the California State Department of Health’s Farm Worker Health Services.
He was selected to work with Kennedy on community health programs in the Bedford-Stuyvescant neighborhoods in Brooklyn, N.Y., and to be an adviser to the U.S. Senate Health Committee, which was then developing the Medicaid program.
Among his other tasks while working in Washington, O’Rourke became a public health consultant to the NAACP and the Legal Defense Fund, and he advised the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Afterward, he returned to California and became a special assistant to Gov. Ednmund Brown for anti-poverty programs.
Brown also appointed O’Rourke the first director of the State Office of Economic Opportunity, which grew out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty.
While in that post, O’Rourke helped other state agencies address equal access to housing, employment, education and health services.
He also provided advice on a federal level on migrant health, public hospitals and community clinics in rural settings.
Afterward, O’Rourke was named to California’s Little Hoover Commission that provided oversight of MediCal and other state health programs.
He became a health policy analyst and advised the state Senate on industrial relations, occupational disability, injury prevention and worker’s compensation reform.
He also was a consultant to the National Association of County Governments and assisted municipalities that were establishing public health programs, guiding them particularly in the areas of developing and regulating health maintenance organizations, and providing service to those with special needs such as the homeless, the elderly, the mentally ill, and those suffering developmental disorders, substance abuse and HIV infection.
O’Rourke wrote or co-wrote multiple publications on public health and health care systems, and he lectured widely on the prevention of injury and disease, on emergency medical systems, and on disaster preparedness in low-income communities.
In his 70s, O’Rourke was a member of the adjunct faculty at the University of California-Davis and helped obtain funding so minority students could pursue careers in health care.
He had been a board chairman of the San Francisco Trauma Foundation and Injury Control Center. He also was involved as a medical adviser and board chairman of Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit disaster relief and community development agency that provides relief both in the United States and abroad.
O’Rourke also traveled extensively and throughout his life maintained an interests in politics, public health and world affairs, according to a news release announcing his death.
The family moved from Sacramento to Benicia in 1978, where Marilyn O’Rourke became active politically, first with the Benicia Unified School District Board of Trustees and later with City Council and as Benicia’s mayor.
The O’Rourkes moved away from Benicia in 1994, two years after the end of Marilyn’s second term as mayor. That was to keep the former mayor’s promise that the couple would move close to the ocean once she retired from office.
“Living on the (Carquinez) Strait was a compromise,” she said last year.
“Paul was above all devoted to his family. He lived every day with gusto and loved a hearty meal, a heated debate, and Spanish brandy,” said Linda Bixby, a former member of the City Council when Marilyn O’Rourke was mayor.
Bixby, a former Benicia Herald staff member who has had a career as a USA Today writer, provided much of the information for this article.
“Paul O’Rourke was eloquent, scrappy, witty, and courageous,” she said. “He proudly swam against the tide of prevailing wisdom, political expediency, and the medical establishment in service to the underprivileged, long before there was the political will or funding to do so.
“He never walked away from a fight, never compromised his principles, and never gave up on a person or a cause he believed in,” Bixby said.
“Paul exemplified in both his personal and professional lives his deeply held conviction that every person has the right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect, and that serving those less fortunate is both an obligation and a privilege.”
Besides his widow, O’Rourke also is survived by their children, Rachel, Sam (Julie), Frances, Kitty, Eileen, Peter, Ronald and Christopher; daughter-in-law Diana; grandchildren Sarah (Torrey), Katie (Corey), Eli, Sophie, Twyla, and Shayla; and friends and extended family.
Bixby said the family has suggested memorial contributions go to Salud Para la Gente, a network of family community health clinics that provides care in the Monterey Bay area, at 195 Aviation Way, Suite 200, Watsonville, Calif., 95076.
Editor’s note: This story originally reported that Paul O’Rourke worked as an adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first two terms as governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Dr. O’Rourke worked for Brown’s father, Gov. Edmund Brown. The Herald regrets the error.