John Darrah, business adviser and family man

Mr. Darrah visited Yosemite National Park with his family in August. First and foremost, he was devoted to his family.
Mr. Darrah visited Yosemite National Park with his family in August. First and foremost, he was devoted to his family.

At a wedding he attended a dozen years ago, John Darrah spotted Emily Newmann across the room and arranged to sit next to her during the reception.

They were a couple not long after, she said, and “I remember on one of our first dates he said: ‘Let’s just go down the Congo River together. Do you want to do that with me?’ ”

From the mouths of many, that would be an empty invitation, but Mr. Darrah got around. He grew up in California, was injured by lightning while camping on the slopes of Mount Rainier, toted home a used tear gas canister he found during a high school exchange in Ecuador, walked across the United States in a peace march, explored the back country of Southeast Asia on motorcycle, and lived in Vietnam, where undoubtedly he was the only red-haired American most met who was fluent in the language.


“I can’t even tell you how many different circumstances I saw my brother live in,” said his younger brother, Peter of Mountain View, Calif. “He was extraordinary in many ways and pushed boundaries. I guess it’s hard to do him justice.”

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Mr. Darrah, a vice president and development manager at the General Investment & ­Development Cos. in Boston, died Sept. 7 when he was struck by a boat while swimming in Flathead Lake in Montana, where he was visiting for the memorial service of his wife’s stepfather, Ted Smith. He was 46 and lived in North ­Cambridge.

Traveling was so much a part of him that at his own wedding, he promised to keep taking trips, though of late Mr. Darrah’s fondest journeys were heading to school each morning with his daughters, 7-year-old Maxine and 4-year-old ­Sadie.

“He said, ‘I vow to see the world with you,’ and I feel we did,” said his wife, Emily. “That was such a big part of our life together, not just the travel, but being open to what’s around, the small adventures in ­Cambridge and taking the kids on trips to go camping. He was really in love with those girls.”

Mr. Darrah spent his days with colleagues at GID’s development group, where he worked for seven years and was helping bring to fruition some 12 million square feet of mixed-use projects in cities around the country.


“John had an incredible raw intelligence,” said Jim Linsley, president of the development group. “He had a great wit, and he had that sparkle in his eyes that sometimes people lose as they get older. John never did. He had a ready laugh in the hallway, a big laugh. We were two grown men, and we’d be high-fiveing in the office when things went right.”

When work ended, Mr. ­Darrah raised a sweat going home, running from the Red Line to arrive in time to put his daughters to bed. He downloaded music on his iPod to learn on the commute so he ­always had new songs to sing to Maxine and Sadie.

“He took such joy in them,” Emily said. “Every little drawing and creation they’d show him, he would light up and tell them how fabulous it was.

“Maxine said her Daddy is always in her heart. After he died, Sadie was smiling and I said, ‘What are you thinking about?’ And she said, ‘I’m just thinking about how fun Daddy was.’ ”

John Guard Darrah was born and grew up in Stockton, Calif., the second of three children. His father, James Darrah of Stockton, is a retired judge. His late mother, Joan Darrah, was a former Stockton mayor.


“We were raised in this idyllic suburban situation,” Peter said.

“He was open to experiences and people and loved easily,” said their older sister, Jeanne of San Francisco. “And he liked taking on new things.”

Among those experiences was demonstrating on behalf of causes such as peace, stopping testing on animals, or unfettered access to Planned Parenthood clinics. Some protests ­involved civil disobedience, and his red dreadlocks made him stand out when police arrived.

“He went on to be arrested 13 times in three different countries,” said his brother, who added, laughing, “but only one conviction.”

While studying briefly at the College of the Atlantic in Maine, Mr. Darrah lived for a time in a teepee. In 1986, he participated in the Great Peace March for nuclear disarmament from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., embraced an anarchist philosophy, and found his way back to California. He finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of ­California, Berkeley, taking time off to live in Vietnam.

After working in low-income housing development in San Francisco, he went to the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he graduated with a master’s in business administration.

Mr. Darrah was living and working in New York City when he met Emily, a social worker and artist.

He was not always fond of his work in management consulting. “He didn’t like shrinking companies and telling people they had to lose their jobs,” Emily said. “He would say, ‘You’re saving the world, and I’m ruining it.’ ”

They married in 2003 and went to Brazil for their honeymoon. After leaving New York, they traveled and lived in ­California before moving to Cambridge.

A distance runner who competed in triathlons, he began his days as vigorously as he ended them. To get home in time to fix banana eggs for his daughters, he swam in Walden Pond so early that he was leaving as friends arrived.

“I swim in Walden Pond ­almost every morning with a friend,” said Michael Rome, a friend from North Cambridge. “We would get there at 6:20 in the morning, and he would be coming out of the pond.”

First and foremost, though, Mr. Darrah was devoted to his family.

“He was happiest when he met Emily,” Jeanne said. “You could feel that Johnnie wanted a family.”

In addition to his wife, two daughters, father, sister, and brother, Mr. Darrah leaves his stepmother, Judy Chambers of Stockton.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Sunday in the Radcliffe Gymnasium at Harvard University in ­Cambridge.

“He just made life fun,” said Emily. “He was romantic. He would come home with flowers.”

Given Mr. Darrah’s love of traveling, no one would be surprised that he did not propose on bended knee in a New York apartment. Instead, he waited until he and Emily were in ­Hawaii, at the end of a journey into the wilderness.

“We hiked to a waterfall,” she recalled, “and under the waterfall he said, ‘I want to die in your arms when I’m 95. Will you marry me?’ And he brought out the ring.”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at