People of the Year

2023 Person of the Year: John McAuliff

For years, whenever there was a community or government meeting about the future of the Enterprise Park at Calverton, EPCAL Watch coordinator John McAuliff was there — to question Riverhead officials, to share his research or to stand with his neighbors and rally the community.

His opposition to the town’s plan to sell 1,644 acres of land at EPCAL to developer Calverton Aviation & Technology for $40 million — a contract that was canceled by the Town Board in October — was vital to the campaign’s success, his friends, colleagues and his wife told The Riverhead News-Review.

“I met him initially when Laura Jens-Smith became supervisor [in 2018], and he was at the door of her office, I think, from day one,” said Cindy Clifford of the Heart of Riverhead Civic Association. “He gets up, very often at Town Board meetings, and there always seems to be a kind of roll of the eyes like, ‘Oh, brother, here he goes again’ ” she said. “And I think part of that is because he’s an elder, right? People tend to discount that, as though somehow the aging process diminishes your abilities to see things clearly, or diminishes whatever weight you might carry in making your statements. So the fact that that doesn’t stop him — that nothing stops him — he gets up every meeting and goes, ‘Here’s why I’m here and here’s what I think.’ ”

Little known to many of his neighbors, Mr. McAuliff is a lifelong activist who has been working since the early 1960s to promote reconciliation and healing and build commonality all over the world. 

“He isn’t just a disgruntled resident,” Ms. Clifford said. “He’s a guy who has been making a significant impact worldwide for decades. And you wouldn’t know it, because he never goes, ‘Oh, and then when I did this, and when I went there.’ I only know any of this stuff because of his wife, Mary.”

EPCAL Watch member Andrew Leven said Mr. McAuliff is and has been a vital part of the conversation over the future of EPCAL from the very beginning.

“What John brings to these situations is a commitment to — let’s call it professionalism and comporting himself with dignity. Beyond being very effective, it’s also part of what he and others are committed to, which is to come to these situations — some of which are kind of jagged — as the person that he is and to remain true to himself throughout, which I think others see and respect. That also indirectly but still meaningfully enhances his credibility, even with people who disagree with him.”

Mr. McAuliff’s wife, Mary Byrne McDonnell, said her husband learned the value of graciousness and universal respect for others a long time ago. 

“I think it is a key quality, but it is also a strategy. That is, if you are respectful, you will learn a lot more, you will listen better and you will be better able to frame your points in a way that responds to others’ concerns and enables them to buy in,” she said. 

“And I think that throughout his career, he’s been a negotiator of the space between people with differences of opinion, coming from different places and having different needs,” she continued. “What he’s looking for is, ‘Is there a common place people want to get to? Is there a common vision, in a sense, and then how do we get to that vision?’ ” 

Born in Brooklyn, the son of a salesman, Mr. McAuliff earned a bachelor’s degree in American history from Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., in the spring of 1964, Ms. McDonnell said. That summer, he went to Mississippi to register Black voters as part of a civil rights program that came to be known as Freedom Summer — an initiative that began that June with the abduction and murder of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.

For two years beginning in the fall of 1964, Mr. McAuliff served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peru. He spent 1967 and 1968 in Washington, D.C., where he received a master’s equivalent in politics of change from the Institute for Policy Studies. 

By the early 1970s, Mr. McAuliff was director of the Indochine Program for the American Friends Service Committee, which worked to end U.S. intervention in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He was part of a delegation that arrived in Hanoi on the last day of the Vietnam War, and spent years seeking to foster reconciliation between the U.S. and the three Southeast Asian nations by bringing together academics from all sides. 

“His idea was, if you can get American professors who are teaching our kids to understand Vietnam a decade after the end of the war, you can then begin to change how Americans think about Vietnam,” Ms. McDonnell said.

She added that for years after the war, her husband felt the American public was “stuck in time, with the helicopters flying off the rooftop in Saigon in ‘75 — whereas the Vietnamese have had another generation of kids and moved on with their lives and with their country.

“So he was trying to bridge that gap, as a strategic means to improve the relationship and move towards normalization,” she said.

Mr. McAuliff spent a decade on that effort before turning his attention to Cuba.

“I think he looks for hard cases,” Ms. McDonnell said, with a lighthearted laugh. “So, once you have normalization between the U.S. and Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, you then ask, ‘What’s next?’… As a Spanish speaker and someone who had been in the Peace Corps in Peru,” she added, he was very interested in bridging cultural gaps between the U.S. and Cuba. 

In an interview last month, Ms. McDonnell said her husband had just returned the previous night from a 10-day trip to Cuba. 

Wherever he goes, she said, “he applies the same strategies: bringing people together, exposing people to one another.” 

Asked what animated his lifetime’s worth of activism, Ms. McDonnell thought for a moment before answering.

“Interestingly, I think it’s about the U.S.” she said. “He believes fiercely in this country, and in its democracy, and in what it can be — and I think wanting it to be its better self. So how can you do that? 

“People on the left often sound like they’re anti-U.S., because the U.S. can never do anything right. But in his case, it’s really animated by, I mean, he was an American history major … and he has taught me a huge amount about America and what it stands for. 

“He wants to help America be good, be right, live up to its values, its morals, its ideals. And I think that’s the thing. It’s less about sort of a broad social justice frame and it’s certainly not a human rights frame. 

“It’s ‘how can we practically find ways to create relationships that enable each side to understand each other and thereby, work together for a better world?’ ”

Mr. Leven said that Mr. McAuliff’s sincerity and diplomacy were vital to this year’s campaign opposing the town’s plans to sell the EPCAL land to CAT.  

“The thing that I found the most impressive about John is, he really is committed to the community. He’s just committed to making things better,” he said.

Mr. Leven said Mr. McAuliff worked on “doing the hardest thing to do, really — which is to try to reach consensus among a group of people with different life experiences and different perspectives and different personalities. One of the things that John was very instrumental in doing was making sure that those different complicating factors were addressed in a way that helps everybody move forward.”

For his commitment to his community and his country, his tireless enthusiasm and his good will to all, John McAuliff is the Riverhead News-Review’s 2023 Person of the Year.