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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Father’s Army service shaped his life early on

By KEVIN LANDRIGAN

Staff Writer

Born an army brat, House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, said he learned early on to travel the world, be unafraid of success and answer the call to public service if it came.

O’Brien was born in Fort Dix, N.J., while his father Clarence, an Army captain and management officer, was over in Korea awaiting his next assignment following the Korean conflict.

Next stop: Yokahama, Japan, beginning the first of many childhood moves for O’Brien.

“They tell me the first language I spoke was Japanese. Of course, I don’t remember much of it now,” O’Brien said during an interview about his earliest years.

He lived in Japan until age 3 amid a Japanese economy still struggling from the devastating end of World War II.

The O’Brien household got help from a team of maids/babysitters that helped bring him up, and he remembers one gregarious helper named Jack.

“I can remember thinking Jack was a real big guy. He’d carry me on his shoulders. I can remember walking to a puppet show with him,” O’Brien said.

“I was later told Jack was 4-feet, 8-inches high. To me he was like a giant.”

O’Brien mostly chooses his diminutive size as a favorite topic for a wry sense of humor.

“My dad was the tallest guy in my family, 5-feet-6, and my son, Brendan is 5-10 or 5-11,” O’Brien declared.

The family then spent three years in Columbus, Ga., for his father’s three-year stint at Fort Benning, then to Augusta, Ga., and later for a multi-year stay in Germany.

His father had enlisted a month after Pearl Harbor and thought Germany was his last assignment. The family eventually returned to Massachusetts where O’Brien’s parents grew up and the patriarch became head of New England recruiting for the Army.

After being educated at Framingham State College and Suffolk University Law School, O’Brien interrupted working for a small litigation firm to clerk for the chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court.

O’Brien took a keen interest in technology, and it paid off when Prime Computer was looking for an in-house lawyer and lured him for a brief time to New Jersey.

From there, it was to Nixdorf, the German computer maker where O’Brien rose to become vice president of administration. That involved a lot of foreign travel.

“I worked on product development, got a lot of management and administration experience. I was having a grand old time,” O’Brien recalled.

“On my trips to Germany, I would take a day off ahead of time or after work, got the best connections so I could stay off at Madrid, Paris, London.”

He later worked for Siemans and worked on the change of corporate structure and sale of the company.

“That was a lot of fun,” O’Brien said.

He took some business with him that made him a valuable part of a new Boston law firm that included former Massachusetts House Speaker Thomas Finneran.

It was the go-go 1990s and software companies were sprouting all over. O’Brien guessed right, getting on the board of directors for Software.com.

A year after O’Brien left the board, the company went public, his stock multiplied many times in value and helped him build a comfortable financial future that can afford the Mercedes, the hilltop home in Mont Vernon and the vacation condo in St. Thomas.

When O’Brien sold his interest in Finneran’s firm in 1999, he started a legal consulting company in New Hampshire but wanted to become an expert in intellectual property.

He got a master’s degree in the subject at then-Franklin Pierce School of Law.

“It is fun to go back to the school. Your attitude is so much better and there is so much relevancy to it,” O’Brien said.

While his reputation is formed by rock-ribbed adherence to conservative principles, those who’ve gotten to know him say there’s another side.

“I think there is a very practical side of Bill O’Brien, a pragmatic one,” said Charles Arlinghaus who runs the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy.

“He seems to fight hardest on the things he thinks he can win. Look at what he did with gambling and repeal of same-sex marriage. He stepped aside, let the House consensus on both issues form without his influence. It made me feel different about him.”

And while O’Brien downplays the role Finneran played in forming his persona, firefighters union president David Lang sees a connection with the backslapping Democrat from Dorchester.

“He can flash that Boston charm on you,” said Lang who’s fought major wars with O’Brien on right-to-work and other anti-collective bargaining measures.

“When you least expect it, he can be very disarming.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Landrigan on Twitter (@KLandrigan).