NYT Magazine Remembers Alex Okrent ’05

Alex Okrent '05

The New York Times Magazine’s “The Lives They Lived” issue features a stirring tribute to Alex Okrent ’05, the Wesleyan alumnus who collapsed and died last July at the Obama headquarters, where he worked, in Chicago. The cause of death was later determined to be cardiac arrhythmia. Okrent, 29, was a College of Social Studies major at Wes, and his passing inspired expressions of condolences from both candidates that day in July:

As journalist Mark Leibovich tells it, Okrent was on board with the Obama cause well before the senator even announced his candidacy in 2007—he took off a semester off from Wesleyan in 2004 to work on Obama’s Senate campaign. Between organizing a campaign book club and dressing up as Tobias Fünke on Halloween in Iowa, Okrent was “demanding, fun and irreverent,” Leibovich writes. “And he was never shy about telling people that he loved them.”

Perhaps the most moving passage of Leibovich’s remembrance describes the mood at Obama Headquarters when word spread of Okrent’s death:

A stunned silence filled the office, broken by audible sobs; then everyone was sent home for the day. The daily smash-mouth of the race paused. Prayers were led, grief counselors were brought in and condolences were tweeted (by Mitt Romney, among others). The president called Alex’s parents in the hospital. A corner testimonial area was designated for Alex at headquarters. It included bottles of bourbon (his preferred spirit), a jar of beef jerky (favored snack) and a vat of blueberries (from the Michigan farm where Alex spent his final weekend). “We will always remember your commitment, humor and passion,” the president wrote on a Post-it Note. “God bless.”

Wrenching as they are, these are the sort of tragedies that bring causes together, in grief and in dedication. Chief strategist David Axelrod would later describe Okrent’s death as “a single moment that unified our campaign and knit us together.” And at campaign headquarters, Okrent inspired a button slogan: “Do it for Alex.”

The Times piece closes with a recollection by fellow alum, meditation expert, and Buddhist House founder Lodro Rinzler ’05, who gathered at a bar with Okrent’s family and friends as election returns poured in. “It was this amazing moment when we knew we were successful,” Rinzler recalls. “And we were also crushed with the realization that we weren’t getting Alex back just because we won.”

Read the Times piece here. More on Alex Okrent’s death here.

[tip via Jared Keller '09]