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December 21, 2005



The Cutter Family mourns a deep and tragic loss.

Peter O’Farrell was the beloved husband of Karen Fine Coburn, President and CEO of Cutter Consortium in Arlington MA USA. He died – far too soon last week – in a terrible car accident while taking his son Nathan to visit a school in Maine. It was a father-son journey, something very typical of Peter, given how much he adored his children.

They say behind every great woman is a man (or something like that), and Peter was the man behind Karen. In many ways, Karen’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for creating the Cutter extended family was made possible in part by the loving attention that Peter dedicated at the home front and in his deep (yet understated) involvement with Cutter. He was not so much interested in being famous, although as my friend Ken Orr writes below – he should have been far more famous than he was. The man was brilliant, and most of all he was kind, but in a world often filled with egos, he wasn’t so much interested in fame.

No, Peter was the quiet and tender guidance behind the scenes, and he preferred it this way. During the times that I was privileged to see inside the world of the O’Farrell-Coburn home, I often saw a father and husband first, before I saw the genius consultant and member of the Cutter Business Technology Council. Peter always spoke so proudly of his family; when he talked about Karen and their children Leah and Nathan, his eyes would fill with a bright sparkle that could light up a room.

Once during a Cutter Summit conference, one of my admired colleagues, Ken Orr, said something like – “I don’t quite believe in nations very much. What I *really* believe in are families, communities, villages and tribes.” Man, has that phrase stuck with me over the years . Ken probably doesn’t even know it, but to me, that embodied the entire essence of the Cutter Consortium. In between a few quiet tears the other day with Anne Mullaney, VP of Cutter, we talked about the Consortium being an extended family. I recently heard a phrase that describes “family” as a starting point; then you grow up, maybe move away, to go out and find your tribe. Cutter is indeed a very special tribe. There is a reason for this: It is simply sourced from the unshakable sense of family that started with Karen Coburn and Peter O’Farrell.

We all deeply mourn the loss of Peter. When my dear friend and fellow tribesman Tim Lister called me with the news, I keeled over as though someone punched me in the stomach. The details of Peter’s passing had struck a powerful chord for me personally. When I was a young boy/man – similar to Nathan – my own father died tragically while I was on a journey with him away from home. In many ways, this singular event defined almost every dimension of my life, including my deep appreciation for family and what it means to be a father. In the broad landscape of the Cutter community, we acknowledge that one of the backbones, one of our fathers, one of our tribal elders, is gone and no longer with us.

I will miss Peter O’Farrell very much.

For those of you who may not have experienced the poetic eloquence of my friend and fellow Cutter consultant Ken Orr, I share with you below his dedication to Peter. It is being published as this week’s Cutter Trends Advisory. While you’d normally have to be a subscriber for the content in Trends, I asked Ken if I could share his feelings for Peter in this blog. He told me that he would be honored. So with humble admiration, I offer Ken’s tribute.

Michael Mah
Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium
Past Editor, IT Metrics Strategies

(Funeral Services will be held Thursday Dec. 29 at M.I.T. Chapel, 77 Mass Ave, Cambridge, 11 AM-12 Noon. Relatives & friends warmly welcomed and invited to gather at 151 Summer St, Arlington commencing at 1:30 PM following Services. In lieu of flowers, memorials in Peter’s name to Robbins Library Trust Fund, 700 Mass Ave, Arl., MA 02476 are much appreciated. DeVito Funeral Home Arlington 781-643-5610)

Grief spreads on the wings of communication. When George Washington died on 14 December 1799, news of his death was carried by word of mouth and newspapers on horseback and on boats across America, and took weeks (months) to reach all parts of that very sparsely populated country. Only 65 years later, word of Lincoln’s death took just minutes to cross the continent, carried by the first electronic communication, the telegraph. A hundred years later, word of John Kennedy’s assassination came to me from a television monitor seconds after it was announced in Dallas as I walked across a restaurant lounge in Chicago. On 14 December 2005, news of the passing of Peter O’Farrell came to me via a cellphone call from my friend Lou Mazzucchelli. The time for tragic information to move from source to destination has shortened dramatically over the last two centuries but the effect is still the same.

Peter O’Farrell was an engineer, a thinker, a writer, a citizen, a husband, and a father. Peter was truly a 21st-century Renaissance man. Peter was not as famous as he deserved to be, but he was enormously important to all of us who knew him personally and to the thousands who knew of Peter only through his contributions to the Cutter Consortium. While many people in the Cutter world had read his articles and opinions, not everyone knew that Peter was also the husband of Cutter founder and CEO Karen Coburn and father of Nathan and Leah.

Peter was perhaps the nicest, kindest person I know. I don’t think I ever remember Peter saying an unkind word about anyone, except an occasional politician or wrong-headed business or technology guru. And he was funny. Peter had a dry, self-deprecating wit that would break up a room of world-famous experts or a family gathering. In an increasingly in-your-face world, Peter was an old-school gentleman. He was gracious to a fault but not in the least wishy-washy or confused. Peter knew what he knew, and God, he knew a lot.

Peter was a member of the Cutter Business Technology Council that I’ve been fortunate to be a member of for the last half-dozen years. The Council, as most of you know, is made up of some pretty bright and accomplished people (present company excepted). If you attended the Trends Council meetings, Peter would seem to blend into the background — until he had something to say! And when Peter talked, he always had something to say. And for me, what he had to say was always informed by a mind that had among the broadest range of knowledge of anyone I have ever known.

Peter was an engineer and manager by training, but he read everything. He understood economics, he understood politics, he understood history — but most of all, Peter understood people. Peter understood that the true impact of technology depended upon how people utilized that technology. He understood the transition from a national economy, in which most of us grew up, to a truly global economy — for all the good and bad that that observation implies. Peter was always pushing the limits of our assumptions. “What does this mean?” he would say, “What does this imply? What are the consequences?” He was interested in the really big trends.

True knowledge, I have come to believe, only exists in the minds of people. What is written down or captured on audio or video tape are only knowledge artifacts. The knowledge in the minds of living, breathing people is not static or finished. So when great minds are gone, there is a tear in the fabric of the world. Peter’s loss leaves such a tear, not only in the fabric of the world, but in the lives of all those who knew and loved him. Our grief and love goes out to Karen and Nathan and Leah and all the people at Cutter. Peter, we will sorely miss you.

— Ken Orr, Fellow, Cutter Business Technology Council