Spotlight: Michael O'Brien, Montville Township Board of Education Member
Friday, August 22, 2014 • 12:00am
MONTVILLE, NJ - It doesn’t take long to realize that Michael O’Brien is a man of many dimensions and has a unique sense of humor and a big personality. He is a man who loves his wife and family and cares about the thousands of students he taught in his over 40 year career at Montville Township High School (MTHS) as a history teacher. His many hobbies and interests are related to his love of history. He is an expert and lecturer on the topic of antiques, a certified appraiser, a member of the Genealogy Society of New Jersey and the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an outdoorsman, and a conservationist to list only a few of his interests.
He remembers MTHS when it was in its infancy at Lazar Middle School which was called Central School and had students in grades 6 to 9. There were no tenth, eleventh, or twelfth graders back then. Those grades went to Boonton High School. Central School had two principals. Bob Lazar was principal of the middle school students, and Dr. Arthur Dermer was principal of the ninth graders. O’Brien remembers a sign saying “Temporary Montville High School” because the high school as we know it was not completed. The first graduating class of MTHS was the class of 1972.
O’Brien fondly remembers Bob Lazar, who hired O’Brien on the spot after only one interview. Lazar said, “Come on. I will show you your classroom.” O’Brien said, “You mean I am hired? Don’t I have to be approved by the Board of Education?” Lazar said, “No, come with me.” And Michael O’Brien’s love for Montville and his students began.
O’Brien said that Lazar was a remarkable man who supported and understood his teachers and students. He was firm and had high expectations of everyone. He was admired and loved by the people who worked for him. “He was a great mentor,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien was asked about the early days when the newly built high school was on the Sisco’s dairy farm. He answered honestly and said it was not always so beautiful to be so close to a dairy farm where manure piles were as high as the library roof. He remembers the teachers, who had rooms on that side of the building, would not open their windows.
When speaking about his students, O’Brien said, “They never ceased to amaze me. Their minds are fresh and uncluttered, and they live in a subculture all their own.” He said he tends to remember all the good in his students and to overlook the negative. “Kids are entitled to make mistakes,” said O’Brien. “If you make a mistake, move on, and do better the next time.” He said that teachers need to be understanding, caring, and patient. As a member of the MTHS Hall of Fame committee, O’Brien gets to see how well MTHS students have done. O’Brien himself will be inducted into the MTHS Hall of Fame this coming November. The school is like a family. “One can’t help but be a better person for being part of it. It was an enriching experience,” stated O’Brien.
His favorite historical figures are Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington. “They were incredible individuals. History is all about people,” said O’Brien. When asked what historical events influenced and changed his life, he said it was the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. These two events were dominating forces of the time.
When O’Brien got the Montville job, he rented a house with five guys who worked in the area. There was this pretty girl living next door named Linda. One of the guys said to him, “Why don’t you ask her out? If you don’t, I will.” That was enough to get O’Brien to ask her out, and in 1978, they were married.
O’Brien and Linda have five children, all of whom graduated from MTHS. They are Dr. Abigail O’Keeffe, Daniel F. O’Brien, Esq., Dr. Edmund O’Brien, and twins Conor and Caroline O’Brien. They also have five grandchildren. “We are so fortunate to have our children. It is a blessing and to have twins is like hitting the bonanza,” said O’Brien. “I cannot imagine my life if I hadn’t met Linda. She gave me new meaning to my life,” continued O’Brien.
His wife Linda, after 36 years of marriage, had this to say about her husband. “Most people know about Michael’s devotion to young people through his teaching and coaching careers and through his community service, but I have seen what a wonderful father he is to our five children, and now also a terrific grandfather to our five grandchildren. Michael always is interested in spending a lot of time with all ten of them. As a parent and grandparent, he is extremely loving, patient, and generous. I couldn’t have asked for a better father for my children, and I think my grandchildren are pretty lucky too.”
He was the last of six children. His fondest memory of his childhood is when all of his family sat around the table for meals. It had a great impact on his life. When he was eight, he was one of six. By the time he was 10 ½, his siblings were all married, and he felt like an only child, but he has wonderful memories of his big Irish family sitting around the table eating and talking. Today he feels the same emotion when his own family gets together around the table for meals and conversation.
When asked how he is enjoying retirement, he said, “It is like that old movie Endless Summer. Once a teacher retires, he is living that endless summer.” It is obvious O’Brien is enjoying every minute of it. He said that it is giving him an opportunity to be helpful to his community and family.
He got involved in politics because his students encouraged him to do so, and after 25 years of hearing their encouragement, he did. He is currently an elected member of the Montville Township Board of Education (BOE), the chairman of the Montville Township Historic Preservation Review Commission, and chairman of the Democratic Party in Montville.
O’Brien got involved with the BOE because a number of people told him “it would be a natural fit.” He said, “So far my experience with the people on the BOE shows that they are the most well intentioned individuals. They do not have any personal agendas, and I cannot say this about every past Board. Their desire is for the good of the school system, and that is why we have a high quality system.”
He believes that the greatest changes in schools are technology and an attempt by the powers above to micromanage what teachers are doing. “They paint all school systems with the same brush instead of focusing on districts that really need their help. We are not one of those school systems. We always have been a good system and have been doing things right for a long time,” he said.
When asked about the new standardized testing system by the state and the common core curriculum, O’Brien said, tongue in cheek, “Let’s test 4 ½ days of every week and have physical education the other half of day.” I guess we can say he believes there is too much of an emphasis on standardized test. He also said he is not a fan of the common core curriculum.
He was raised in Clifton, NJ and received his Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Fairleigh Dickinson University, his Master of Arts degree in administration from New Jersey City University, and he did additional graduate course work at Montclair State University and the University of Bridgeport.
He retired from MTHS in 2008 after teaching humanities, United States history, sociology, minorities, and political biography. He initiated the Civic Involvement Program designed to make students aware of the structure and workings of local government. He was among the founders of Project Graduation under the Youth Services Commission. He was awarded the Jefferson Cup by the Parents Council for his dedication and support to MTHS. He also was selected by the Montville Chamber of Commerce for the Civil Service award.
O’Brien also coached many sports teams on all levels such as the Amateur Athletic Union, Catholic Youth Organization, recreation, and high school. He coached baseball, lacrosse, softball, soccer, and especially basketball in Montville and surrounding communities.
He has served on Youth Services, Drug Awareness, and was president of the Montville Township Education Association for several terms. For a number of years, he has been and continues to be the “Voice of the Mustangs” for MTHS home football games. He is a member and supporter of the Sierra Club, Passaic River Coalition, and Friends of the Delaware.
He continues to travel widely throughout the U.S. and Canada in pursuit of his interests related to the environment, genealogy, and history. In his travels, he is most likely to be found in Downe Township on the Delaware Bay, in Pennsylvania, and Montana.