My Best Friend, Bill O’Malley

Bill O’Malley was an exceptional person. For 11 years I worked for him when he was the District Attorney of Contra Costa County, for 10 years we were colleagues on the Superior Court Bench, and for the next 23 years we were best friends.

After I left the Bench, Bill and I had a standing date for breakfast at the Hickory Pit in Walnut Creek every Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. By the time I arrived, he had finished reading the paper and was two-thirds through the crossword puzzle. (If you’re interested, he always ordered poached eggs, toast, juice and tea. We picked Mondays because his Rossmoor cleaning lady came on that day and he couldn’t stay in bed once she arrived.)

He described himself as “Boston Shanty Irish”—not to be confused with “Lace Curtain Irish.” During our friendship of 45 years he was the most unaffected, down-to-earth, genuine, sensitive, funny person I’ve ever known. Given the right circumstances, we could have solved the problems of the county county and the world with our morning talks. . . or at least we would have been satisfied with our solutions.

He was also a popular and astute politician. During his active years, I doubt there was any organization in Contra Costa County that wouldn’t enthusiastically welcome him to their gatherings and ask him to speak. They all knew Bill and amazingly, he knew their names and was familiar with each of them. He worked hard at this acceptance. He attended “Toast Masters” to develop his speaking skills, attended two or three gatherings each night and thoroughly enjoyed the give-and-take of political life.

He was elevated to the public eye unexpectantly when John Nejedly became a State Senator and the Board of Supervisors had to appoint his replacement to fill out the District Attorney’s term until the next election. Bill was not a front runner for the position, but, as he analyzed it, he would win the appointment. He understood the relationship between each member of the Board and the front runners, determined that none of them could receive three votes, and he was everyone’s second choice. True to his analysis, he got the appointment.

His next political challenge was to get re-elected in a county-wide election against a well-known attorney from Richmond. He called upon his friends and family to pitch in and help. To encourage his children, he promised that if he won the election, he would put in a swimming pool at their house in Danville. After the successful election his children began to press him for the pool. Bill responded, “Let me think about that.” Bill’s wife, Claire, immediately responded, “Typical politician, already breaking your promises!” The pool was soon constructed at the O’Malley house.

After that election, Bill had established himself as an unbeatable political force in the county, and he was elected unopposed in every county-wide contest thereafter. This includes his election and re-election to the Superior Court.

Robert Frost wrote a poem about the “road not taken.” O’Malley seemed to run counter to his fellow New Englander. Bill was constantly returning to a place or an activity he had done before.

He finished his World War II Navy service in Alameda, California. Eight years later he packed his two-door coupe with all of his family’s possessions. With his wife, Claire, and their two small children, they began the drive to California from the East Coast. Someplace in the Southwest he stopped the car, dumped some of their possessions so his children could sit on the seat instead of pinched between a small mattress and the car ceiling and drove onto the Bay Area. Bill with grit and determination had returned to California!

He resumed his work as an insurance adjustor and went to law school at night at Golden Gate University. He graduated first in his class. During the next few years, he alternated between being a claims adjustor, a private attorney and a Deputy District Attorney. He really enjoyed the prosecutor’s job; however, as he and Claire raised their nine children (and sometimes some neighborhood kids, too!) his job selection was dictated by how much money was needed to support the household.

Bill was a very honorable and moral person. The last time he was a Deputy District Attorney he became embroiled in a dispute with his superiors. He felt it was morally and ethically improper for him to file a specific criminal case. The evidence didn’t support it. His superiors persisted and ordered him to file the matter. Bill felt this was wrong, and he quit the office. I asked him if the case got filed anyway. He said he didn’t know. He just left the file in a desk drawer and walked out!

In a similar way, once Bill became District Attorney, he would have a chat with his new attorneys, find out how they were settling in, and then he would talk about responsibility. He told us of the awesome power we were entrusted with as Deputy District Attorneys. Our decisions would have great impact on the lives of those arrested and accused of a crime as well as their families. He told us always, “Do the right thing no matter what the consequences or pressures involved.” Lastly, Bill would say, “Never compromise your integrity.” Bill would sometimes say, “Do what it is.” We interpreted this to be the shorthand reminder of this admonition.

Bill was very proud and independent. Even as he went in to his nineties, he railed against people trying to help him walk; however, if one of his grandchildren said, “May I help you, Grandpa?” . . . that was different!

He also made it a point to make every grandchild’s and great grandchild’s baseball, football, and basketball game. This would require him to drive to three or four different cities in one day. He truly enjoyed the efforts of each of the teams as he cheered “Good play” from his lawn chair. He became such a fixture at these games that it was common for both teams to run to his location after a game and give “Grandpa” a high-five!

It has been said that Bill O’Malley was the patriarch of an amazing family. O’Malleys are identified in many public positions of responsibility throughout the Bay Area. Bill certainly recognized this legacy; however, I felt he was most proud that his children were responsible people who had successful lives and families. They all know how to work hard, but also they know how to have a good time, be happy and love each other.

Bill and I went on several trips together. The most memorable were those that were spontaneous. We would drive to Squaw Valley to ski, and when the slope was closed due to high wind, we would end up in Virginia City. We went to the Cal-Oregon game in Eugene, Oregon and ended up in the luxury box seats on the 45 yard line because his daughter-in-law, Mary Ann, graciously gave them to us. At halftime she wanted them back because it was raining heavily. The owners of the luxury box were also trying to figure out how these Cal rooters got into their sacred space! Bill graciously declined the invitation to leave.

As I remember Bill, his final trip truly made an exclamation point to his life. As his casket was moved from the church following his funeral, a bagpipe started to exhale. I was expecting to hear “Amazing Grace,” the usual funeral dirge. Much to my surprise, relief and pleasure, the pipes proudly broke into “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” How perfectly appropriate! Bon Voyage, Bill. May angels escort you to your final destination . . .with no side trips. I’m ever so glad I knew ya.