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John O'Leary Dies; Mayor, Ambassador to Chile

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page C08

John O'Leary, 58, a Portland, Maine, lawyer and mayor who served as ambassador to Chile during the Clinton administration, died April 2 at his home in Washington. He had complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

During his tenure in Santiago from 1998 to 2001, Ambassador O'Leary pressed the Chilean government to reinvestigate the deaths of three U.S. citizens during the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He took the initiative in opening to public scrutiny 23,000 documents in the U.S. archives addressing human rights abuses, political violence and terrorism in Chile from 1968 to 1991.

John O'Leary pushed to reinvestigate deaths during Pinochet's reign.

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He also helped launch negotiations that led to the U.S.-Chile free-trade agreement -- the first such agreement between the United States and a South American country. It went into effect Jan. 1, 2004.

Ambassador O'Leary was born in Portland. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 1969 and was a Mellon Fellow at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he received a master's degree in 1971.

He graduated from Yale's law school in 1974 and became a trial lawyer with Pierce Atwood, a Portland law firm.

A Democrat, he served on the Portland City Council from 1975 to 1982 and was mayor in 1980 and 1981. He lost a bid for Congress in 1982.

As mayor, he was instrumental in securing city and community support to build the Portland Museum of Art and a new Portland Public Library.

He held leadership positions in the American Bar Association and the Inter-American Bar Association and served on the Inter-American Commercial Arbitration Commission. He also served on a three-member U.S. team formed by Vice President Al Gore to advise the government of Bolivia on economic development and environmental protection. The effort led to the Santa Cruz hemispheric summit on sustainable development.

In 1997, he organized a bar association conference in Argentina called "Development, the Environment and Dispute Resolution."

A freshman class at Yale had sparked an interest in Chile. Clinton, a classmate at Yale law school, offered him the ambassadorship to Chile after the two had a rain-soaked talk in a Costa Rican rainforest.

Returning to Washington in 2001, Ambassador O'Leary became a principal of O'Leary & Barclay, a company with offices in Washington and Santiago that focused on cross-border business opportunities between the United States and Chile and in the rest of the Americas. The company also specializes in negotiating, developing, promoting and implementing free-trade agreements with the United States.

He was a recipient of the Bernardo O'Higgins medal, the highest honor Chile bestows on a foreign citizen.

During the last year of his life, as he fought off the initial effects of Lou Gehrig's disease, he worked with Goldman Sachs of New York and the Wildlife Conservation Society to create a conservation reserve in Tierra del Fuego, near the southern tip of South America.

He served as president of the Chilean American Chamber of Commerce and as a board member of the Council of American Ambassadors.

Survivors include his wife of 27 years, Patricia Cepeda of the District and Little Diamond, Maine; two daughters, Alejandra Cepeda O'Leary of New Haven, Conn., and Gabriela Cepeda O'Leary of Providence, R.I.; four brothers; and one sister.

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