From Nonviolent Cow

Milwaukee14Today: Richard Oulahin

“My spring was broken this morning with sadness as I heard that a friend from the sixties, Richard Oulahin, had died. We were both Marquette students 40 years ago and both involved with social justice and peace issues. Briefly we lived in the same community house. Although I knew Rich was involved in the anti-war movement at the time, I did not realize until reading the obituary that he had been kicked out of Marquette for his peace activities. However, Rich was a proud member of the large club of us who have been suspended, fired or kicked out of Marquette for peace and justice struggles. After Pat and I returned to Milwaukee in 1995 we came across Rich at the restaurant in the Esperanza Unida building. We stayed in contact for a while and contributed to and attended the event when the mural on the side of the building was dedicated. Although we were both working and advocating for persons in need we lost contact. I heard a while back that he had suffered a serious injury, but only learned a few weeks ago that it was a brain aneurysm. I thought about visiting him in the rehabilitation center but, as before the attack, was too busy to do it. There is always a note of sadness in spring, but like the life of Rich, hope, joy and the tulip rise up again.” {from Diary of Worm, May 10, 2008}

Oulahan fought for city’s poorest

Posted: May 9, 2008

Richard Oulahin

Richard Oulahan, a passionate, committed and outspoken fighter for the poor, who built Esperanza Unida into an award-winning agency dedicated to creating family-sustaining jobs, died Friday. He was 60. Oulahan spent more than 30 years building the south side nonprofit into an agency that won national acclaim for its programs to train poor people in auto repair, welding and other skills designed to lead to well-paying jobs. But in August 2005, he suffered a brain aneurysm that left him disabled and unable to continue the work that defined his life. Since then he’s been at the Mount Carmel Rehabilitation Center, where he died Friday morning. “He fought the good fight to the end,” said his brother Dennis, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. “He never quite recovered. And even though he was badly hurt by the aneurysm and all the surgeries, even today, you could see he was continuing to fight.”

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said in a statement, “Rich really was the voice of progressive Milwaukee. His contributions to our community leave a lasting impression of his dedication. Rich will be dearly missed.” State Rep. Pedro Colón (D-Milwaukee) called Oulahan “strong-minded, but in my view, for the right reasons. . . . He cared about people who lived in this neighborhood. Many people I know got their first break at the agency he managed, and he managed a great agency. It’s a tragic loss.”

Eloisa Gomez, a longtime activist in the Latino community who was his companion for the past 10 years, said Oulahan battled for the most vulnerable, beginning with injured workers. The work then expanded to training people for jobs that paid a living wage, she said. “He wanted to get rid of barriers and tackled some significant issues while trying to get laws changed, but he never forgot about the worker who was struggling to make a decent living for him- or herself and their family. He was tenacious.”

Born in New York, Richard, or Ricardo as he was often called, was one of seven children. He learned to speak fluent Spanish while living in Mexico City, where his father was a reporter for Time magazine. From there, the family moved back to the East Coast and lived in New York and Connecticut.
He came to Milwaukee to attend Marquette University. But he became involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement and got kicked out of school, Gomez said. “He was proud of that,” she said.

After a variety of jobs, he got involved with Ted Uribe, who was forming Esperanza Unida to help injured workers with compensation claims. Oulahan soon became the driving force of the young agency that grew to 70 employees with an estimated yearly budget of $3.2 million. About 60% of the agency’s revenue comes from its diverse businesses, including fixing and reselling cars. The agency built a social entrepreneurial model in which revenue was reinvested into the programs. The agency redeveloped the dilapidated building at 611 W. National Ave. into office space that included a coffee shop and bilingual bookstore. The building is emblazoned on one side with a mural of a colorful eagle, dove and flags that can be seen from the expressway. Lanky, with a no-nonsense attitude and full of ideas, Oulahan eschewed suits and ties and dressed like the workers around him. He owned neither a car nor a house.

“He could be very direct when people didn’t agree with him,” said his brother Dennis. “He was cynical of politicians and didn’t like lawyers, so when I was elected I wasn’t at the top of his list,” Colón said. “But he always reached out and said ‘Let’s try to get something meaningful done.“
Oulahan was a charismatic leader to those who knew and worked with him, and his illness rocked his agency.

In addition to Dennis, Oulahan is survived by two sons, Cain and Luke; another brother, Joseph “Pepe”; and two sisters, Carol Sweet and Molly Parrack.

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