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Forever Friars: The Dobber

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Dan O'Brien circa 1954
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Fenwick High School periodically profiles people affiliated with our community who have since passed on ...

Dan O’Brien ’34 (1917-2003)

Remembering DOB, “the Dobber:” a coaching/training legend affiliated with Fenwick for seven decades.

By Mark Vruno

In the basement of Fenwick High School sets the Dan O’Brien Natatorium. Our swimming Friars will host the 30th Annual Dan O’Brien Relays this coming January. Younger alumni and present-day students may wonder: Who was this O’Brien guy and why is he a such a legend at Fenwick?

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Dan O'Brien was more than a stellar swim/dive guru; he was versatile. DOB was a FHS student (Class of 1934) who then served as a physical education teacher at his alma mater. “Dan's first Fenwick paycheck predated the Social Security system and had no social security withholding,” deadpans Jerry Lordan, PhD., who teaches social studies at Fenwick and wrote the preface for O’Brien’s oral history, a hardcover book entitled Fenwick Over the Years.

In 1937 Football Coach Tony Lawless hired O’Brien to lead his freshman team. Football was O’Brien’s first love in sports. In the fall of 1930, seven years earlier, Fenwick was only one year old. Dan was a scrawny, 128-pound freshman who showed up for tryouts at the new school, only to be snickered at by burly classmates and upper-classmen. “Sorry, son,” said Lawless, according to a 1972 Oak Leaves article. “I can’t use you. You’ve come out for the wrong team.”

O’Brien, however, was determined and refused to give up easily. Here’s how reporter Ted Londos recounted the story 42 years later:

“The kid faced the wise, young coach and replied firmly, ‘Mr. Lawless, I’ve come out for the team. You’ve asked for candidates. Here I am. You’ve got to give me a chance to show you what I can do.’ And so, to get rid of that reckless kid, Tony put him into a scrimmage – just for laughs. But on the first play, Coach Lawless’s eyes popped when he saw the tiny freshman bring a varsity giant down with a devastating tackle. Again he tried him out, and another regular bit the dust. Young Lawless shrugged his shoulders and decided to let the gutsy little guy hang around. ‘What’s your name?’ asked the coach.”

But the feisty O’Brien’s gridiron career with the Fighting Friars was short-lived. As a sophomore he suffered severe medical complications from the surgical removal of a kidney, which kept 15-year-old Daniel out of school for an extended period of time in 1931-32. “His surgeon warned him that the procedure may either fail and/or kill him,” Lordan later learned. “Dan outlived the surgeon and saw the surgeon's grandchildren (twin boys) attend Fenwick.”

Fast-forward 45 years, to when two of his former swimmers-turned-doctors came to O’Brien’s aid. “I had come back to Chicago in 1977,” recalls Leonard Vertuno ’57, M.D., a Loyola-educated nephrologist (kidney specialist), “and Pete Geis knocked on my door.” Dr. Peter Geis ’60 was a transplant surgeon and an All-State swimmer three years ahead of Vertuno at Fenwick. “Pete said, ‘Dan needs a doctor, and you’re it.’”

So began a reuniting of player and coach – and an adult friendship that would span more than a quarter-century. It was Dr. Vertuno who would give the eulogy at Dan O’Brien’s funeral in 2003. “He was an amazing man,” the retired doc said in early November from Sarasota, FL. “Dan was renowned nationally and internationally. He chose to stay at Fenwick and work with Tony [Lawless].”

From field to pool

For the next 34 years O’Brien would pace the fabled sideline as part of Lawless’s football staff. His freshman teams compiled 20 undefeated seasons in the rumbling, tumbling Chicago Catholic League (CCL). In 1949 some 100 colleges wanted Fenwick All-State running back Johnny Lattner ’50 to play football for their school, including the University of Michigan. At the invitation of Notre Dame Head Coach Frank Leahy, O’Brien traveled to South Bend, IN, with Coach Lawless and young Lattner. During their visit and stadium tour, Leahy asked, “Will John make a difference here?” The prophetic freshman coach replied, “Lattner will make this stadium ring.” Soon, the Fighting Irish would hear for themselves what he meant.

Six years earlier O’Brien had become Fenwick’s head swimming and diving coach – a title he kept for 23 years. In the pool during that time, the Friars won 23 consecutive CCL titles under the Dobber’s leadership. His teams were undefeated in dual meets: 325-0. They lost only one invitational (64-1).

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Coach O'Brien in 1964.

O’Brien, who ironically never swam a competitive stroke, coached 74 All-American swimmers or divers, including Jerry Darda ’56 and Jack Pettinger ’57, both of whom went on to coach at the University Wisconsin in the Big Ten (diving and swimming, respectively). Pettinger and teammates/’57 classmates John McGuire, Don Puchalski and Norm Pierce recorded a 200-yard medley relay time of 1:47.1 at Nationals. Although not an All-American, Johnny O’Reilly ’52 swam at the University of Michigan when the Wolverines were a powerhouse in the pool. Perhaps most famously, O’Brien coached U.S. Olympian Ken Sitzberger ’63, the 3-meter springboard gold medal winner at the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games. The late Sitzberger never lost in high school competition.

O’Brien acquired an unfortunate allergy to chlorine, which severely affected his sinuses and expedited his retirement as Fenwick’s swimming/diving coach in 1965. “I remember he was always spitting as a result of that condition,” says Dan Cronin ’77, an attorney and former senator who swam for the Friars and now is chairman of the DuPage County Board. “I can still see Dobber Dan in the training room stretching out the ankles and feet of Larry Wert [’74],” Fenwick’s record-setting diver, swimmer and water-polo player who later ascended to become president of broadcast media for Tribune Media. “On the football side, Mr. O’Brien also had a relationship with my dad,” Cronin adds. A Friar and a former footballer himself, the late Richard Cronin, M.D. ’44 was an orthopedic surgeon for 55 years.

More than Taping Ankles

After retiring as a football coach in 1970, O’Brien continued as Athletic Trainer, a skill for which he was first trained during the ’34 All-Star football game. Dobber learned about sports-related first aid under the tutelage of Northwestern University’s Carl Erickson, renowned as one of the best trainers in the country at the time. Thirty-eight years later, Londos wrote that “Fenwick’s training room is considered one of the finest equipped, up-to-date operations anywhere. It provides a health service for the entire student body and serves as a complement to the entire interscholastic athletic program.”

Current Fenwick and Athletico trainer Tony McCormick ’78 says: “Dan O’Brien is the reason I got into this business.” Nobody in the Catholic League had trainers back then, adds McCormick, who served as a student trainer under the Dobber. Tony remembers other schools in the conference sending injured athletes to Fenwick. “It was a common practice back then,” he notes. One famous example was Weber High baseball slugger Bill “Moose” Skowron, who paid a visit to Oak Park and O’Brien in the late 1940s. Moose got healthy, played for Purdue and, later, for the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox, appearing in eight World Series and winning four with the Yanks.

Mike McCormick ’73, Tony’s older brother, formerly managed the Athletico physical-therapy facility on Diversey Parkway in Chicago’s DePaul neighborhood. “Dan had more success in coaching but always said he took the most pride in being an athletic trainer,” says Mike, who helped O’Brien obtain a Special Recognition Award from the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association (IATA) in 1987. The Macs’ father, Bob McCormick ’33, was a year ahead of O’Brien at Fenwick. (Incidentally, Tony Mac still can do a great Dobber impersonation. He imitates Lawless, too!)

In 1976 O’Brien began a stint as an award-winning Athletic Director, a post he held until his official retirement after a 55-year professional career (plus four years as a student!) at Fenwick in 1989. Bob Dobry ’78, a wishbone quarterback for the Friars, remembers O’Brien as “a gentleman. He taught first aid in the cafeteria and used to walk around football practice holding a golf club,” Dobry recalls.

O’Brien really never stopped working, continuing as Athletic Director Emeritus and coming into the school about three days a week until his death in 2003, two weeks’ shy of his 87th birthday.

Dan & Don

“Dan had a saying when we used to go out recruiting [players] together with [Coach] Don Heldmann,” recalls Mike Curtin, who took over for O’Brien as Athletic Director for the Friars. Fenwick always played by the rules, of course, “but Dan would say, ‘You have to get close enough to the fire without getting burned.’” Over the years, Heldmann became very close with O’Brien. “Dan used to say that ‘Don is Dan and Dan is Don,” Curtin says with a laugh.

Curtin, originally a South Sider who had worked at Mendel Catholic, contends that the reason he got the job at Fenwick is because O’Brien saw his wife selling tickets during a really cold game in the winter. “I guess he figured if she would do that, I was the right guy for the job. Dan once told me he liked that I wore a Fenwick hat at the football games, but that I wore it too high on my head!” All kidding aside, the longtime AD (Curtin retired in 2011) credits O’Brien with being incredibly loyal. “Dan would go to the wall for you.”

Fenwick’s “new” pool, aptly named the Daniel J. O’Brien Aquatic Center, was constructed in 2000. Vials of water from the Dan O’Brien “Pool of Champions” (1929-1999) – where the faculty cafeteria now is situated -- still can be found around Fenwick. There are so many trophies downstairs in the school that the hardware has overflowed its cases.

In 1965 O’Brien was the first recipient of the John Newman Award as the Swimming Coach of the Year in Illinois. The coach was inducted into the FHS Hall of Fame in 1979. He also is enshrined in the HOFs of the International Swimming Association and the Illinois High School Coaches Association. Together with Lawless, O’Brien helped found the CCL Hall of Fame. (In addition, he was coach and pool manager at Riverside Country Club from 1955-61, according to the Oak Leaves account, and was the first aquatic director of both Ridgeland Common and Rehm pools in Oak Park from 1962-68.)

“Dan was an instrumental member of the Illinois Swimming Association back in the 1960s,” says present-day Fenwick Head Boys’ Swimming & Diving Coach Luke McGuire ’90, son of the previously referenced John McGuire from O’Brien’s 1957 team.

A single man into his mid-50s, O’Brien subscribed to clean living. “Mr. O’Brien didn’t smoke, drink or swear, and he owned about $2 million in Lake Geneva property. We lived next door to him up there for 16 years,” the younger McGuire reports. From his father, Dobber had inherited real-estate investments in and around Oak Park. Curtin remembers O’Brien flying three banners on his property in southern Wisconsin: first the U.S. flag, then Ireland’s and, below those, the Fenwick flag.

O’Brien married for the first time when he was 57 in 1973. The lucky lady was Marguerite “Meg” Helme McSheehy, a widow and mother of seven, but Dan always felt that he was the lucky one. Dan had been friends with Meg’s first husband. One of Meg's daughters, Mary, is married to Oak Parker Mike Mullen '68. O’Brien’s new family would grow to 12 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, including Class of 2017 Fenwick twins Clare Frumkin, a freshman at Marquette, and All-State water polo player Kelly Frumkin, a freshman at Santa Clara University.

His Last Whistle

Former Friars’ Swimming Coach Bob Groseth came to visit O’Brien after a bad fall landed the Dobber in a hospital room at Loyola Medical Center in Maywood. At the time, Groseth was the head man of Northwestern University’s program, and Mike Curtin asked Dan if he knew who had come to see him. “He wore a gray tweed suit when he interviewed for the job at Fenwick, and I hired him,” responded O’Brien, sharp as a tack.

Later, when O’Brien literally was on his death bed, frail and near the end, he told Curtin: “Michael, I think I’ve blown my last whistle.” Yet somehow, strangely perhaps, the old coach’s presence hovers above the Fenwick pool named for him, the adjacent training room and the “House of Studies”/Priory practice fields at Harlem and Division streets in River Forest.

Upon the occasion of O’Brien’s death 14 years ago, Heisman Trophy-winner Lattner told Chicago Tribune reporter Bill Jauss: “Tony [Lawless] could scare the hell out of you. Dan never scared you. He’d spit in his hands and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do.’ He was like Mr. Friendly. He really cared about you. The amazing thing is that he never left Fenwick. He graduated in 1934 and never stopped caring for the kids.”

Similar to Lattner’s arrangements in 2016, O’Brien was waked in the gym at school, "under the south basket" as Curtin recalls it. Former Fenwick two-way football star Marty Finan ’79 was among those who carried the Dobber’s casket down the West Wing stairs. “We used to torture O’Brien,” admits Finan, a running quarterback and safety who spent his share of time getting treatment in the trainer’s room in Oak Park before moving on to the University of Notre Dame. (The “undersized” Finan rushed for more than 1,000 yards, beating out Joliet Catholic lineman and former Chicago Bear Tom Thayer as the 1978 Chicago Sun-Times Player of the Year. He also had 29 interceptions in a three-year varsity career -- and graduated 10th in his class.)

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Wishbone QB Finan was one of DOB's frequent "patients" in 1978 (Sun-Times photo).

All in fun, Finan remembers dipping Q-tips in Vaseline and plastering Mr. O’Brien with them when his back was turned. “He looked like a victim from Custer’s Last Stand!” But O’Brien also was respected by Finan: so much so that Marty asked DOB to read at the funeral of his own father, John Finan ’52, who suffered a fatal heart attack at age 44 during Marty’s senior season at Fenwick.

“When I think of Fenwick, I usually think of ‘the Dobber,’” says Bob Doyle ’67. “In addition to taking care of our physical problems, Dan was someone you could always talk to, man to man, in an era when sports-authority figures were hard to get close to.”

The late John Jardine ’66, former Fenwick and University of Wisconsin football coach, agreed with that sentiment. Of O’Brien, Jardine said this in the early 1970s: “Principles and honorable practices sometimes seem to sag with the quickening world pace and its increasing complexities. Sports has its sharp dealings, and in an industry so dependent upon goodwill and publicity there are temptations to dodge questions, withhold facts or twist an angle. But Dan doesn’t know how to speak anything but the truth.”

Leo Latz III ’76 has fond memories of DOB, too: “No one loved Fenwick High School more than Dan O’Brien, as evidenced by his lifelong commitment to our alma mater,” Latz writes. “I am grateful for the years I knew Coach O’Brien as a student, player, co-worker, mentor and friend. His dedication, passion and enthusiasm were an inspiration to all who came into contact with him.”

“I grew up next door to Fenwick and had the pleasure of knowing Dan from the time I was in grammar school,” remembers Joseph Gubbins ’51. “He, Tony Lawless and Bill Shay were dedicated educators who played a huge role in the development of many Fenwick students.”

Bob Chmiel ’65 takes his praise a step further “Dan was my very first football coach,” Chmiel shared recently over the phone. “I was so excited after our first day of practice freshman year in 1961. I ran home and told my dad, ‘I’m going to be a football coach!’ He said, ‘No, you’re going to be a dentist.’” In 1989 that story was told to Chicago Tribune reporter Barry Temkin. At the time, Chmiel was the Recruiting Coordinator for the University of Michigan football program and famous Head Coach Bo Schembechler; he went on to have a similar role under Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. “I only played for him [O’Brien] for one year,” Chmiel told Temkin. “But he never really stopped coaching me, not only in football but in my whole life.”

After a stint in the Army, Chmiel began his coaching career with the freshmen at St. Philip’s the year before it closed. “We beat Fenwick for the first time ever. After the game at the House of Studies, I walked across the field to shake the hand of Coach O’Brien, who said, ‘Robert, we have got to talk.’ He wanted me to come and coach the Friars,” which Chmiel did. All these years later, Coach Chmiel still is assessing athletic talent at the high-school level as head of football operations for Dark Horse Sports Recruiting.

Two more reflections from when Mr./Coach O’Brien passed away in 2003:

  • “It was my privilege to have been coached/taught by this man of principle and dedication,” Edward Vertuno ’50, one of Len’s older brothers, wrote from Tallahassee, FL.
     
  • “Dan was a strong influence on my life: a great person and a great coach.”Paul Chestnut ’56, Palo Alto, CA

In the ’89 Trib article, O’Brien himself is quoted: “You can be a strict disciplinarian if you are fair and consistent, and I think I was.”

“There were no exceptions to O’Brien’s rules,” Temkin explained. “Drink, smoke, break curfew before a competition and you were gone. An occasional late-night telephone curfew check was one way he showed freshmen he meant business.”

But there was a soft side to the hard-nosed façade. “O’Brien was as big a success off the field,” Temkin continued in his tribute. “Whether it was helping out a student who needed clothes, making sure a kid from a broken home fit in at school or just offering current and former students a shoulder to cry on and an honest opinion, he was always there to help.

“Maybe that explains why so many alumni remain close, why someone such as Wisconsin swimming coach Jack Pettinger named O’Brien godfather of one of his children and still talks to him once a week.” He was godfather to Jardine’s son, too.

At the end of the Temkin piece, the Dobber, then still vibrant at age 73, said: “What the students have done for me has made me a happy man in my profession all these years. I just came here in 1930 and adopted the place.”

When pondering his incredible sporting records, one may wonder: Did O’Brien’s teams win because they were disciplined; or were they disciplined because they won so much? Maybe it was a blend of both, stirring up those waters and pounding the tundra.

Some 60 years after swimming at Fenwick, Dr. Len Vertuno remembers a simple sheet of paper that his old coach would distribute annually to the team. “It contained 10 or 12 aphorisms, and two of them stand out to me to this day:

  1. ‘First deserve, then desire.’
     
  2. ‘What do you seek? Pay the price and work, and take it away.’

“These are words by which generations of [Fenwick] swimmers lived,” Vertuno stresses, citing an old adage: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter what road you take.’ “Fenwick gave us a map, and Dan taught us how to read it,” he concludes.

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