Dan Oates, embraced family life after commune

By Peter DeMarco, Globe Correspondent
Boston Globe, June 25, 2007

Dan Oates, with his wife, Leah Rainy, and their children.

The happiest time of Dan Oates' s life, by all accounts, was the seven years after he was diagnosed with cancer.

For the first time in his life, at age 50, Mr. Oates stopped moving around the country. He married and settled down in a small Maine town with his wife, Leah Rainy. He and his older brother Jamie, of Belmont, Maine, became regular fishing buddies, making up for the two decades Mr. Oates had lived in a commune and had virtually no communication with his family.

Mr. Oates embraced fatherhood, teaching his daughter Willa, 4, and son, Kai, 2, how to garden, pick wild mushrooms, and appreciate nature.

"He expressed over and over again that he had been looking all his life for a community like this," said his friend Susan Silverio, who is also his daughter's kindergarten teacher in Lincolnville, Maine, where Mr. Oates and his wife lived. "When he had arrived, he was frank that he was dealing with cancer. But since he had found Leah and his children, he had a new sense of life and fulfillment. He expressed over and over that he was his happiest with his family."

Mr. Oates died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma June 1 at Waldo County General Hospital. He was 58 .

He was born on Christmas Day 1948, the son of James M. Jr., a Watertown real estate lawyer and longtime School Committee member, and Maureen K., an environmental educator. One of six children, Mr. Oates was an intelligent, freckle-faced boy who did not like to be told what to do. "He was really the guy who tried to break all the rules," said his sister Kati of Bedford.

Mr. Oates studied journalism at Boston University, where, his mother said, he became involved with a radical 1960s newspaper called The Avatar, which was frowned upon by authorities because it contained "very frank sex talk and some satirical obscenities," according to a 1967 Globe story. Dozens of people connected to the paper were arrested on obscenity charges in Boston and Cambridge, but a 1968 Globe story said it continued to publish every two weeks. After two years, Mr. Oates dropped out and went to live in a Roxbury commune, the Fort Hill Community, which epitomized the counterculture movement of the day.

Fort Hill Community was led by Mel Lyman, The Avatar's controversial publisher, who once said he was a world savior and fostered a male-dominated environment in which women served men, according to several published reports.

But Lyman was also a charismatic motivator who put commune members to work in a successful construction business. The Los Angeles Times reported in 1985 that Lyman's commune owned two multimillion-dollar mansions in Hollywood, a Martha's Vineyard retreat, and a 280-acre farm in Kansas, among other holdings.

Mr. Oates spent two decades traveling among the commune's many branches across the country, his family said, raising wheat on the Great Plains and doing carpentry for Los Angeles movie stars.

At age 20, Mr. Oates married and had a daughter, Leah. However, the commune's rules required that children be raised in a separate collective, away from their parents. Mr. Oates accepted this philosophy, but his wife did not, and she left the commune with their daughter .

Mr. Oates fathered a second daughter, Rosesharon, whom he also did not raise. But she stayed in the commune and had some contact with her father, she said.

Mr. Oates was a good conversationalist who made friends easily, family and friends said, but while he was a member of the Fort Hill Community, he barely communicated with his family, they said.

"The commune -- that was hard to understand," said his sister Kati. "It was something that perplexes me . . . even to this day. It's that question of how does someone who has a very strong, independent way of thinking become so enmeshed in a community that is so enclosed?"

But by the late 1980s, the commune had changed, said his mother, Maureen of Bedford. Lyman had died and Mr. Oates no longer saw in the group the ideals he had embraced in his youth. At about age 40, Mr. Oates left the commune, returning to Massachusetts and a welcoming family.

"It was hard to have him missing," Kati said.

Rose Sharon, who lives in Oakland, Calif., said that her father had deep relationships with commune members and that it was painful for him to leave.

"As far as I feel, it partly shaped who he is," she said. "He moved in there when he was 19, and as his daughter I have to believe it was something he believed in and loved. I know from going back, when I visit Roxbury, it's still considered family to me."

His daughter Leah said she reconnected with her father about four years ago and saw him just before his death.

She acknowledged they did not have a good relationship, but said: "One thing about Dan I can say is that he was very true to himself. . . He made a lot of decisions that were unorthodox."

In the 1990s, Mr. Oates established a successful contracting business in Boston, using the carpentry and construction skills he had learned in the commune, his family said. He employed Brazilian workers and helped them obtain green cards. He became fluent in Portuguese, writing songs in that language that he played on the guitar.

After his cancer diagnosis, he gave up the business "to return to simpler things in life," Silverio said. He moved to Cape Cod, where he met Leah Rainy, a singer and artist. The couple married and moved to Martha's Vineyard. They wrote songs together, which she sang while he played guitar, and they produced a compact disc while she was carrying their first child.

Within a year they moved to Lincolnville, near the home of Jamie Oates . They quickly became part of the community, enrolling their daughter in preschool, visiting farmers markets every week, and forming a band called Serafina, which played at church halls and coffeehouses.

Mr. Oates's mother said her son finally found his place in life with his wife and children in Maine.

"When he came out of the commune, one of the biggest regrets he had was not being there to raise his children," she said. "He really loved being a father when he got the chance to do it. . . . He was happiest at the end there."

In addition to his wife, mother, brother Jamie, sister Kati, three daughters, and son, he leaves two grandchildren and three other brothers, Larry of Benton City, Wash., Kevin of Prattville, Ala., and Pat of Bedford.

A memorial service is scheduled at 10 a.m. Sunday at the family home of Jamie's wife, Jeannette Faunce, in Owls Head, Maine.

© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company

  Mel Lyman