The Saintly Dr. O'Leary
Early in October 1983, three months into a bitter strike at the Phelps Dodge copper mine in Morenci, and days after the rampaging San Francisco River washed away 600 miners' houses in nearby Clifton, Dr. Jorge O'Leary was called to the hospital emergency room.
"A little girl had a 103.5 fever," O'Leary says. "This little girl was sick. She was not being treated."
O'Leary was a master of various medical trades —from obstetrics to surgery to family practice—and he hastened to help the child.
"I went to take care of her," he remembers, "when a nurse said, 'You can't see her. Her father is on strike.'"
The family had suddenly lost their health benefits. That very week, after the flood destroyed a third of the houses in Clifton, Phelps Dodge cut off the miners' health insurance.
To O'Leary, the patient's father's status, or ability to pay, was of no consequence.
"I did treat that little girl with the fever," he says.
The doctor with the improbable Spanish-Irish name had been on staff at the Phelps Dodge Morenci Hospital for 11 years. He was a Phelps Dodge employee, but he wasn't shy about expressing his support for the workers. After all, they were his patients. He'd delivered 2,500 of their children and taken care of their wives. And these families had already suffered from a biblical plague of woes.
They'd been on strike and out of work since July. The miners' union had agreed to a wage freeze, but Phelps Dodge was pushing for more concessions. In August, Bruce Babbitt, Arizona's Democratic governor—forever after known as Governor Scabbitt—had staged an invasion of the town, sending in helicopters and heavily armed troops so Phelps Dodge could re-open the mine with non-union labor. In September, miners living in company-owned houses began getting eviction notices. And now the flood had devastated the eastern Arizona mountain town.
As O'Leary tells the tale, two or three days after he rushed to the aid of the dangerously ill child, the Phelps Dodge hospital medical director confronted him.
"Do you know to whom this floor belongs?" the man demanded. "Who pays for the lights, the electricity?"
O'Leary had a ready answer.
"They belong to Phelps Dodge," he declared. "I don't belong to Phelps Dodge. If someone is sick, I will see them."
Two hours later, O'Leary got a termination letter. "They asked me not to see patients. I refused, and they fired me."
O'Leary quickly became a folk hero of the doomed strike. The strikers helped him create a free people's clinic in an old feed store in Clifton.
O'Leary got the word out: "I will see anybody who wants to see me in the clinic."
For three years, O'Leary treated striking miners and their families without charge, scraping by with donated medical supplies and the occasional payment. He delivered babies in women's homes. He and his wife, Anna Ochoa O'Leary, had six children of their own in their blended family, but the doctor soldiered on without pay.
Phelps Dodge denied ever banning any patients, strikers or not, from the hospital.
"Anyone who arrives at the hospital is going to be provided care," Phelps Dodge personnel director Richard P. Boland told Carol Ann Bassett in a People magazine report from Jan. 16, 1984. (Bassett would later have a stint as editor of the Tucson Weekly.) But Boland concluded his denial on an ominous note: "Then we'll take care of the billing situation."
The actual termination letter, from mine manager John Bolles, berated O'Leary for his fiery speeches. Bolles accused O'Leary of fomenting the strike "through public appearances and statements. ... It is not appropriate for us to condone your inflammatory behavior by continuing you in our employ."
The tumultuous strike became a fixture of the national news. Not only was there a racial dimension to the strike—the striking miners were mostly Mexican, while the replacement workers were mostly Anglo—there was a brand-new gender angle. Women walked the picket line and turned the Morenci Miners Women's Auxiliary from a ladies' aid society into a potent political force. Jorge's wife was one of the members.
And the charismatic doctor himself, given to rooftop speeches and calls for a general strike, captivated the media. Bassett wrote in People that "he sided with the community's powerless." In September 1984, the Arizona Daily Star praised him as a compassionate country doctor, noting, "in Greenlee County, some call Dr. Jorge O'Leary a 'saint.'"
The people's clinic got letters and donations from all over the world. Bruce Springsteen invited the O'Leary clan to a concert in Phoenix in 1984, kissed Anna and their daughters backstage, and gave $10,000, strings-free, to the clinic.
The Boss also gave O'Leary 20 front-row tickets to distribute as he pleased. The doctor went outside and handed them to the rock fans, telling each one, "Remember the union."
If there had not been a Jorge O'Leary in Clifton, it would have taken a substantial imagination to invent one, Jonathan D. Rosenblum dryly commented in his book Copper Crucible: How the Arizona Miners' Strike of 1983 Recast Labor-Management Relations in America.
There's that name, for one thing. But it's entirely authentic. O'Leary's father was "off-the-boat Irish," as his wife puts it, and his mother, Marina, was half-Yaqui; their son learned about injustice and honor from both sides of the family. His Yaqui grandfather, Isidro Franco, lost his parents in Mexico's late-19th-century war against the Yaqui.
"As Mexicans, we have many things to be ashamed of," O'Leary says sadly.
His Irish-born father was propelled out of his homeland and into Mexico by English domination. He grew up strong-willed and independent, eventually taking a stand on principle that cost him his job.
"My father paid a high price for his free thinking," O'Leary says.
In honor of St. Patrick's Day, O'Leary agreed to recount the family history. Now 70, O'Leary is still a fit 6-footer. ("My father was 6 foot 2," he says.) He's still working as a doctor, at an El Rio clinic in Tucson. As he wades into the family saga, speaking in an English softly tinged with his native Spanish, a gaggle of visiting grandchildren are shrieking in the kitchen with their grandmother, mother and cousins.
"My grandfather, John O'Leary, was from Cork, in the southern tip of Ireland," O'Leary begins. "His wife was Catherine O'Leary. My half-sister went to Ireland and looked it up in the church."
John O'Leary was an engineer, recruited at the turn of the last century to help Mexico develop a northern railroad. Ireland, O'Leary says, was still "under the boot of England." Ireland didn't get independence until 1922.
In Ireland, O'Leary's options were limited, but in Mexico, he would be privileged as a white man working for the railroad's foreign owners. "Only the whites were allowed to be engineers," his grandson says.
In 1900, John departed Ireland with Catherine and their baby son, Michael John O'Leary, born the year before in Cork. The family made their way to Monterrey, in northeastern Mexico, and in their new country, little Michael quickly became Miguel. His brother, born soon after in Mexico, was given the Spanish name Guillermo.
"My father spoke Irish when he was a little kid," O'Leary says, and, in later years, when he was drinking, he'd break out into English. When he was very far gone in his cups, he'd revert to Irish.
"He used to say the O'Learys were a special clan," and he took exception to schoolteachers' giving his sons' last name a Mexican twist, pronouncing it oh-lay-AH-ree. Their name was Irish, he insisted, and it should be pronounced the Irish way: oh-LEER-ee.
The early deaths of his Irish immigrant parents—when Miguel was 9 or 10—threw both boys out into the world. The enterprising Miguel learned to type, at 16 taking a job as a government secretary, and he studied public accounting through a correspondence course. With his growing expertise in business, Miguel eventually got a high-level job at the mega-brewery Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma, in Monterrey.
Just as his son Jorge did years later, Miguel had a high-minded conflict with his employer that cost him his job.
In Catholic Mexico, "My father was a free-thinker, a mason," O'Leary says. Distressed over his manager's lack of faith, the brewery owner "asked him to talk to the bishop. Father told the bishop, 'I love Jesus. I will become Catholic if you show me the path.'" But the bishop was a wealthy man, living in luxury; he had no inclination to tread the path of humility and poverty that Miguel was asking for. The meeting ended badly.
"The owner fired my father a few weeks later. They tried to tell him what to do and how to act."
Miguel O'Leary's fortunes declined. His next job was a lower-level position at a minor brewery in Nogales. Jorge Juan (named for his Irish grandfather, John) was born there in 1940, the first child of O'Leary's second marriage. There would be four children; the youngest, and only girl, was named Rosa Maria Catalina, her final name given in honor of her Irish grandmother, Catherine.
Their mother, Marina Franco, daughter of the displaced Yaquis, had big ambitions for her children. It was she who determined that her eldest would become a doctor.
"In those days, it was a prestigious career—a vocation to help your fellow man," O'Leary shrugs.
He trained at the highly ranked Universidad Nacional Autónimo de México, and in 1967 came to the United States for advanced study. He interned at a hospital in Toledo, Ohio, and then went to Tucson to do a residency in surgery. (The UA did not yet have a medical school.) After a three-year stint in obstetrics in Mexico—experience that would serve him well in Clifton/Morenci—he returned to the United States permanently.
"I had a job offer at a hospital in Virginia," he says. "When I traded my visa for students for a permanent residency, it took 30 minutes. They told me, 'Welcome to the United States, Dr. O'Leary. We need doctors.'"
Not long after, he got another offer, this one from the Phelps Dodge hospital in Morenci. The pay was good, and the position was in Arizona, close to his family in Nogales and Hermosillo. His native Spanish skills helped him land the job in a community that was heavily Mexican American.
"I did surgery, OB, family practice, orthopedics surgery—whatever was there," he says. "I liked it there. The patients were wonderful, all colors. We had a nice town before the strike. They had a very good contract."
And until the strike, Phelps Dodge liked him back. In 1984, the Star reported that just before O'Leary was fired, a hospital administrator had "praised his professionalism, called his work record unblemished and said he was the most popular physician on staff."
In the 1980s, the country was turning anti-union. Americans cheered on Lech Walesa's Solidarity union in faraway Poland, but in 1981, their own president, Ronald Reagan, fired thousands of striking air-traffic controllers. Even in this harsh atmosphere, Phelps Dodge's scorched-earth policies stood out.
"Phelps Dodge is set on breaking this strike," the pro-business Fortune magazine commented on Aug. 22, 1983. "Tough tactics like these haven't been seen since the '30s."
Before it succeeded in smashing the Morenci strike, Phelps Dodge was best known in labor history for masterminding the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. The copper giant conspired with the local sheriff and his deputies to arrest 2,000 strikers. The men were piled into boxcars, railroaded out of town and dumped in the New Mexico desert.
That was one way to end a strike. In 1983 in Morenci, the Phelps Dodge strategy was to keep its giant open-pit copper mine functioning by using the labor of non-union new hires and union workers who chose not to strike. If the company could keep the showdown with the striking workers going long enough—especially with plenty of help from Babbitt's tanks and sharpshooters—they could lawfully hold a new election, and have their new workforce vote the union out.
The plan worked perfectly. The union was decertified three years later, in early 1986. Thousands lost their jobs.
"Phelps Dodge had plans years before to bust the union," O'Leary says. "They won. They still operate the pit mine in Morenci. They never stopped. There's been no union ever since." (Phelps Dodge metamorphosed into Freeport McMoRan Copper and Gold, which now runs the mine.)
O'Leary had his share of confrontations during the charged years of the strike. Name-callers derided him as a "half-breed between Irish and a camel." He had become a citizen in 1980, and was active with the U.S. Army military reserves, but that didn't stop people from telling him to go back to Mexico.
One day, he was working in the clinic when he heard a commotion outside. People were shouting that a woman was having a baby.
He went outside, and found officers from the state's Department of Public Safety blocking the woman's way to the clinic.
"The baby was hanging between her legs in her underwear," he remembers. "I went out and grabbed the baby. They wouldn't let the woman into the clinic."
He received a number of threats. He says a DPS officer came into his office one day to tell him, "Do you know what we did to guys who made so much trouble in Vietnam? We killed them." A local law-enforcement agent demanded that O'Leary meet him under a bridge, where 20 toughs were gathered. The doctor didn't go.
He and Anna struggled to feed the kids, but he says the children were proud of what their parents were doing. When his daughter Marina, now a lawyer in New York, was named valedictorian of her class at Clifton High School, she was awarded a $1,000 prize by Phelps Dodge.
She refused to accept it.
O'Leary eventually got a settlement of $26,000 for back wages and fees, but he had to sue to get it, he says. "Phelps Dodge never paid me everything they owed me. It was good for the company, bad for me."
When the strike ended, the family moved to Tucson. Anna was already studying at the UA, and with the help of Dr. Augusto Ortiz, Jorge got his first jobs around town at UA medical clinics in Sahuarita and Three Points.
At first, he had trouble getting hospital privileges; he believes that the long arm of Phelps Dodge extended into the hospitals' board rooms. He called on Tucson's Catholic bishop, Manuel Moreno, for help, and O'Leary himself let the hospitals know that he could drop a word to the press or the unions that the saint of Clifton was being shut out of work. Soon enough, the hospitals let him in.
For years, he ran his own medical practice on South 12th Avenue, caring for the poor. He retired briefly before going back to work as an El Rio staff doc.
"I'll work a couple more years," he says.
Anna is now a professor of practice in the UA's Department of Mexican American and Raza Studies, and studies the travails of migrant women from Mexico. And his sister, Rosa Maria Catalina O'Leary, is "very well-known in the state of Sonora as an activist. She fights for clean air, for the miners in Cananea."
Rosa Maria named her daughter Irlanda, for Ireland. Irlanda has the last name of her Irish forebears, but she says it in the style of the country where she was born. Visiting her Uncle Jorge, she announces that her name is Irlanda Paloma Lizarraga O'Leary, giving it the Mexican pronunciation oh-lay-AH-ree.
The family learned at least some of their lessons of loyalty and service from Irish-born Michael John (Miguel) O'Leary.
His son says, "My father told me, 'We have to do something good in the country that feeds us."