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On January 7, NRPA lost one of its most energetic and dedicated former advocate board members and board chairs, Eric O’Brien. “Eric believed that parks and recreation could change people’s lives for the better,” says Dean Tice, former executive director of NRPA from 1986 to 1991, “and he deeply believed that everyone was entitled to the benefits of parks and recreation.” Fran Mainella, former director of the National Park Service, says, “Eric was an integral part of NRPA’s leadership for many years. He exemplified the citizen working with the professional. When I think of citizens working for parks and recreation, I think of him.”
O’Brien began his career as a sales representative for M.E. O’Brien and Sons, a family business in Medway, Massachusetts, that under his ownership became the largest supplier of outdoor recreation equipment in New England. The business today continues under the leadership of his daughters.
Pat Faust, president of Landscape Structures Inc. (LSI), says that O’Brien and Sons was always one of their top sales companies, but he notes that O’Brien contributed to the field of parks and recreation in many other ways as well. “He was always interested in helping people, not only in his business, but [also] through his volunteering and leadership in NRPA and other organizations. He brought many new people to NRPA from the commercial sector, contributed financially himself and helped raise funds for the association. Barb King, founder of LSI, along with her husband Steve, became active in NRPA because of Eric,” says Faust.
As an advocate in the early 1970s, O’Brien began to serve on local park and recreation boards and committees in Massachusetts, including for the Town of Medford and later, the Olmsted Parks State Advisory Board. He was elected to NRPA’s board of trustees in 1985, which he served on until 1994 and was then elected chairman of the board for two terms from 1995 to 1999. O’Brien also served on the board of the City Park Alliance, the board of advisors of the National Association of Olmsted Parks, and was a world judge for the Nations in Bloom international horticultural competition.
Joe Crookham, CEO of Musco Lighting, offered some personal reflections on O’Brien. “He was a visionary in the field of parks and recreation. When Eric was in the room, it was hard not to notice him. He had that quality of leadership that made you pay attention. He was always committed to making life better for people and was dedicated to improving life for young people,” Crookham says. “When it came to raising funds, he was pretty good at figuring out who had the money and how to persuade them that they would be contributing to a great cause. His leadership was influential at all levels. People like Eric gave me faith to invest time and money. He was a member of the team you just did not want to let down.” He says wryly, “I sat around the table for a couple of hours one time with Fran and Eric, and I recall I even got to express an opinion or two.”
O’Brien’s daughter Meghan, now a principal in the family company, says, “Parks and recreation helped my dad make a living, and he felt it was super important to give back. And he did, tenfold.” O’Brien’s warm personality and unswerving dedication to making life better for all people through parks and recreation will be truly missed.
Richard J. Dolesh, NRPA’s retired Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, continues to write for Parks & Recreation magazine as an Editor at Large.