Passing of Prof. Emeritus Dean O'Brien

Archived photo of Dean O'Brien

Dean O'Brien

Prof. Emeritus Dean O’Brien, who retired from UW-Green Bay two decades ago but left a rich community legacy with his contributions to Artstreet, Voyageur magazine and the education of numerous working journalists and engaged citizens, died Wednesday (June 16) in Buffalo, Minn. He was 78 years old.

Obituary in the Green Bay Press-Gazette

O’Brien joined the new UW-Green Bay as a founding faculty member in 1968. He retired in 1990 as professor emeritus of Communication and the Arts. His primary teaching responsibilities involved journalism courses, and he was the first and longest-serving faculty adviser to the weekly Fourth Estate student newspaper.

At the time of his retirement he shared reflections for an article by 4E editor Shelly Nemetz. He said his teaching strategy with student journalists tended toward hands-off, especially with the newspaper. “I’ve always tried to make myself unnecessary. I like to leave students on their own, for the most part,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll ask me, ‘What are we going to learn in this class?’ And I’ll say, ‘Let’s see when we get done.’”

O’Brien was an outspoken advocate for an activist press and free speech, making numerous presentations and contributing essays and letters to the editor on First Amendment issues during his time in Green Bay. He got his professional start as a reporter and editor for newspapers in Highland Park, Ill.; Madison, Wis.; and Jackson, Mich. He earned his bachelor’s in journalism, and master’s and doctorate in education, all from the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Dean O'Brien standing beside a web press

Dean O'Brien standing beside a web press

A native of Waukesha, O’Brien served in the Marine Corps at the end of the Korean War before returning to pursue his studies. As a boy and young man, he assisted in his family’s well-known photography business. Among those he met and worked with were America’s first family of acting, the husband-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who maintained a Wisconsin residence at their Ten Chimneys estate at Genesee Depot. A touring exhibit of O’Brien Photography’s publicity stills and Hollywood-at-home images of the Lunts was featured in a UW-Green Bay Lawton Gallery show in 1999.

Dean O’Brien’s academic interested extended to landscape design and public spaces. He made several trips to England and Wales, most notably in celebrating his 50th birthday with a months-long walking tour in spring 1982, and with some of the first UW-Green Bay January Interim trips overseas in the 1970s.

Shortly before his retirement from the faculty, O’Brien became editor of Voyageur, the periodical of the Brown County Historical Society published in cooperation with UW-Green Bay and St. Norbert College. He enlisted participation of UW-Green Bay’s graphic communications faculty and advanced students to enhance the magazine’s appearance and provide practical experience for students. He did the research, writing, editing and much of the photography for Voyageur’s 10-year anniversary book, Historic Northeast Wisconsin: a Voyageur Guidebook. He and his wife, Polly, spent two years researching the book, visiting almost all of the 650 historic sites in the 17-county region.

Dean and Polly O’Brien are generally credited as the originators of Artstreet in 1982 when Dean was an officer of the Northeast Wisconsin Arts Council.  Their idea for what would become the popular August festival came about to test some principles he had proposed having to do with news theory and public imagery, and to break the stereotype that “arts are an elitist thing.” A proponent of downtown development but also historic preservation, he saw it as a boost for Green Bay’s central city.  Polly was the first Artstreet director and Dean was the publicity officer.

The O’Briens were also early proponents of a botanical garden in Green Bay and organized the first Green Bay Botanical Garden Fair. They were honored with the garden’s Founders Award in 1987 for their leadership in establishing the fair.

To be nearer their two sons and their grandchildren, the O’Briens moved to Baraboo in 1995, where he was a columnist for the Baraboo News-Republic newspaper, and then to Minnesota in 2003.

A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday (June 22) at Park Terrace/Park View Ministry Center in Buffalo, Minn.

His most enjoyable experiences at UW-Green Bay?

“I think it’s the low-voltage stuff, like working with the people on the 4E, and the exchanges with students,” O’Brien told the newspaper (no doubt puffing his trademark pipe as he spoke). “Low voltage isn’t like being on center stage with people clapping. It’s thinking every day is pretty pleasant. Happiness lies in low voltage.”

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3 Responses

  1. Shelly (Nemetz) Hribernik says:

    Dean was lovingly referred to as the “velvet hammer” by The Fourth Estate staff. He had a way of critiquing our work (and especially my overuse of commas) in the most kind and gentle way. Truly a wonderful mentor and great friend. He will be missed.

  2. Mindy says:

    Prof. O’Brien will definitely not be forgotten. His footprint on the the community will last forever. While he won’t be forgotten he will be missed.

  3. Sue Bodilly says:

    I loved working with Prof. O’Brien and appreciated his “hands-off” approach. Often I felt that I didn’t know what was expected of me until he critiqued my work. It was a frustrating way to learn. However, I’ve found out through the years, that is just the way life works sometimes. He didn’t sweat the small stuff, and I appreciated that. I remember once when I was injured and would have had extreme difficulty typing (yes, typing) a paper, he allowed me to submit it freehand. He was the kind of guy that caught a student a break as long as it didn’t compromise the lesson. He told us that a good news story that meets the deadline is better than a great story that never made it to the press on time. I’ve held on to that lesson which transcends journalism. I was saddened to hear of his passing. I appreciate what he brought to UW-Green Bay and this community. He will not be forgotten.