Farewell Mr. O’Brien and thank you for making an impact
The text message came in on Saturday night, and for a moment my mind wandered back to my high school days.
“Dad is in a coma. Has been for a couple of days ... It shouldn’t be too much longer. Looks like a Friday funeral. Family is holding up well.”
The sender was Tim O’Brien; the recipients were Tom Mittelstadt and myself. Long ago, we did everything together, and Tim and Tom are the two people most responsible for my offbeat — some would say weird — sense of humor.
“Dad” was Bill O’Brien, the high school teacher who made the biggest impression and had the most influence on me, a young kid in Mapleton, Minnesota, trying to figure out where he was going in life.
Mr. O’Brien wasn’t your typical teacher. He had a seemingly running feud with our school’s administration. He would at times just walk out of class, and we had no idea where he was going or when he would return. His speech classes were, to put it mildly, different.
He wanted to teach us poise so as one of us would be giving a speech, the rest of us would go into distracting mode. The class with Tim and Tom — they were two years older than me — once dang near did a striptease as one of their classmates delivered a speech.
Mr. O’Brien was also our play director, and little ol’ Mapleton High was well-known as a “drama school.” We did our share of comedies and farces, but it was in my school’s “old gym” where I first saw plays like “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “David and Lisa” and “I Never Saw Another Butterly, powerful performances about the famed diarist, youth mental health and children imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp.
I was involved in some form or another with 12 plays. Every fall and every spring, I was either on lights, the crew or the stage in grades 7-12, and our director was like a great coach — pushing us to our limits for weeks but instinctively knowing the perfect time to “back off” and let us succeed or fail on our own.
And we never failed Bill O’Brien. Seriously, he could drive us nuts rewriting scenes on moment’s notice and then changing his mind the very next day, but as strange as it sounds when it comes to plays, we would have run through the proverbial brick wall for our director.
What I will always remember, though, is that Bill O’Brien turned me on to writing.
In eighth grade, we spent a quarter writing stories, transferring them on to overheads and then getting our writing critiqued by both our teacher and our classmates.
If we wrote or said something stupid — and we were eighth-graders so we did — we’d get Mr. O’Brien’s go-to line, “that’s dumber than a pound of blacktop.”
Some kids hated his rapier wit, but I took it as a challenge.
Years later, when I told my English teacher and play director that I was going to major in accounting, he gave me the Bill O’Brien glare for a few minutes before telling me “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. … You’re going to hate it, and you’ll probably end up in prison because there’s no room for creativity in accounting.”
I lasted in accounting for less than a year, moved to teaching and then settled on journalism.
“You’re going to be as poor as dirt, but you’re going to have a blast,” Bill O’Brien told me when he found out that I had decided to make newspapering my career.
He was right on both counts.
Over the years I saw less and less of Bill and his wife, Lonnie, who passed away last September.
I went to her funeral and had a chance to talk to my old teacher, and I knew he didn’t have all that much time remaining. Then again, we’ve had Bill O’Brien dead and gone numerous other times, only to see him somehow rebound.
But then I got that text on Saturday evening, and this one felt different. This one felt like the “one,” if that makes any sense.
Unfortunately, I was right. I wrote the first chunk of this column on Sunday afternoon as I watched my oldest son play baseball for NIACC. When the game was over, we went out to eat and watch a little NFL. My phone dinged. It was the same sender and the same recipients.
“He passed away today.”
Bill O’Brien was 89, and I’ll always be grateful that he was such an important part of my life. He was a hard man to get to know, and boy oh boy, he had some quirks.
A year ago, I drove to Mapleton for Lonnie O’Brien’s funeral, and her husband may have been enduring terrible grief and failing health, but he still had that wit.
In 1991, Tim, Tom and I watched Game 6 of the World Series and helped ourselves to a few — OK, all — of the Heinikens in the fridge. We were smart and slept at the O’Brien house, and the following morning, all three of us received “bills” from Bill. There was $19.95 for “room rent” and $6 apiece for the beer.
Last fall, I gave my condolences to Bill, and before I could finish, a mischievous smile formed on his face and he said, “Where’s my %$&*^% money?”
We talked a bit more, and before I left Mapleton to head to Forest City to watch Noah play football, I cornered him and told him how much of an impact he made on me and how I appreciated being his student and involved in his plays.
Mr. O’Brien, to say the least, was never a sentimental man, but he looked up and simply said, “Thank you, that means a lot.”
I realize none of you had the chance to meet this brilliant, cantankerous man, but I write this today to not only to honor him but to remind all of us to reach out to those who made an impact on our lives and thank them.
I think of the countless times I drove past Mapleton on my way back to Iowa in recent years, and I’d give anything to have one of those drives back so I could stop in my hometown and shoot the breeze with the man who put me on the path I’ve walked for the last 35 years.
Now, it’s too late, and it will be a regret that I will take to my grave.