A Life: John O’Brien, veteran and forester from Orford

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    Forester John O'Brien, of Orford, N.H., right, speaks with Gov. John Lynch, second from right, about damage caused by an April 2007 windstorm to trees around Hanover's water reservoirs. "I spent 30 years trying to grow all this," O'Brien said, who manages the forest for the Hanover Water Works. "It went down in three hours." Also on the April 30, 2007, tour are Orford tree farmers Tom Thomson, left, and Peter Thomson. (Valley News - Rob Strong) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file

  • John O'Brien, of Orford, N.H., with his grandson Sam during a Hats Off to Heroes program at Fenway Park in Boston in 2018. Throughout his life, O'Brien remained committed to making sure the sacrifices veterans made were never forgotten. (Family photograph)

  • After graduating from UNH, John O'Brien, of Orford, N.H., served in the Army and was a platoon leader in Vietnam where he was wounded and awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He later joined the New Hampshire Air National Guard. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/26/2021 8:57:36 PM
Modified: 12/26/2021 8:57:08 PM

ORFORD — When Jeff Smith was a young forester and new to the Upper Valley, John O’Brien was one of the first foresters he met and the two developed a close working relationship. As the years went by and O’Brien began doing scaling back, he suggested Smith contact some of his clients.

“John was so trusted by his clients that when I would call them up — they didn’t know me — but would say, if John O’Brien recommends you, that is all we need. I didn’t have to prove myself; John already proved himself ahead of me. He was one of a handful of people I have met in my life that the minute you meet him, you know he is a great person.”

Smith called O’Brien a mentor who passed on his skills and knowledge of forestry and land management.

“It was really impeccable forestry — if there is such a thing — with John,” Smith said. “Forest management is not an exact science. It is art and science and John developed the art of forest management to a T. People put their faith in the person they hire and when they hired John O’Brien, they could not have gotten anyone better.”

O’Brien, who died Dec. 1 of a heart attack while working in the woods, left a legacy of not only an expert in forestry, but that of a kind and generous man, a loving husband, father and grandfather, and a staunch supporter of veterans who also managed to find time to volunteer for his town.

“He was just so generous with his time and skills,” said his sister-in-law, Nancy Fleming.

Another close friend, Dave Thomson, said a lot of what O’Brien did, such as building playing fields for the town, was known by many but he did a lot of things quietly.

“On a Sunday morning, you might see him picking up trash along Route 25A,” said Thomson. “He was an unbelievable person.”

O’Brien had a forestry and land management consulting career in the Upper Valley for more than 40 years. He managed more than 30,000 acres of private and public land on both sides of the Connecticut River and was highly regarded for his knowledge of the entire spectrum of land management.

“Once John had a client, they did not seek another forester,” said Nory Parr, a forester for Grafton County who knew O’Brien for 40 years. “Everybody was more than happy with the management of their land.”

Parr said he never gave it a second thought when a landowner hired O’Brien.

“He was open and honest as the day is long, maybe more so. He always went the extra mile, from dawn to dusk and beyond and made sure everything was done right, from A to Z.

“He got the job done; ice storms, floods. He didn’t panic,” Parr continued. “He would figure it out where others may see it as too daunting or complicated. There was no quit in John.”

Parr said a good forester understands not only the expectations and objectives of the landowner but also the limitations of the site with respect to soil conditions, income, wildlife habitat and recreation.

“He was the whole package,” said Parr. “What set John apart from many foresters was that he was very keen on access, whether for harvesting timber or building recreational trails. He was an expert. I often called him the Michelangelo of dirt.”

O’Brien was born in Keene, the oldest of four children of Leon and Faith O’Brien. He grew up on the family dairy farm and in the early 1960s earned a bachelor of science and a master’s degree in forestry and wildlife management from the University of New Hampshire, where he captained the football team.

Mike Yankowski recalls meeting O’Brien when he spotted him in a grassy area at UNH called the Quad throwing a football in a perfect spiral from behind his back. They would later both serve in Vietnam, though in different branches of the military, and remain lifetime friends and hunting partners.

“We spent hours in the woods chasing white-tailed deer. There was only one way with John and that was 100 percent,” said Yankowski.

While forestry may have seemed like an all-consuming enterprise for O’Brien, his children and grandchildren said they always came first in his eyes.

“For, me it was how giving he was with his time,” said his daughter, Megan Harding, who lives in Newbury, Mass. “He was first and foremost a family man. My brothers (Michael and Daniel) and I have felt loved and supported every minute of our lives. He was an extremely hard worker and valued his job and clients but he always made time for us. I don’t think he ever missed an extracurricular event (of ours.)”

O’Brien married Deborah Tullar in 1979 and they shared 42 years together.

Megan said even when Alzheimer’s dosease began to affect her father’s short-term memory, he remained interested in learning, travel and doing as much as he could, even taking up running in his early 70s and taking part in some 5K races with his family.

After graduating from UNH, O’Brien served in the Army and was a platoon leader in Vietnam where he was wounded and awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. He later joined the New Hampshire Air National Guard. Throughout his life he remained committed to making sure the sacrifices veterans made were never forgotten.

Mike Horn, who served with O’Brien in the civil engineering squadron of the Air National Guard, recalled an effort several years ago by O’Brien to recognize veterans.

“He took it upon himself to write to town moderators in New Hampshire and ask them to recognize veterans at their annual Town Meeting,” said Horn, who remembers the moderator in his town of Hooksett doing exactly that.

Mark Stevens of Canterbury, N.H., also served with O’Brien in the NH Air National Guard 157th CE Squadron for many years. They deployed all over the world and constructed whatever the Air Force wanted and needed.

“I liked and respected him as both a friend and as the commander,” Stevens said. “Col. O’Brien was a ‘hands-on’ type of leader and you’d usually find him pouring concrete, digging trenches, stacking sandbags, operating bulldozers, erecting tents in the rain, and getting muddy right alongside with the lowest ranking airman. That made him highly regarded by the troops under his command.”

Even with family and forestry, O’Brien also found time to serve his town in different capacities including the Orford Historical Society and the Parks and Playground Committee.

His longtime friend Dave Thomson opened a service station in town soon after O’Brien came to Orford and like many others, they forged a lifelong friendship.

“I get choked up just talking about him,” Thomson said. “Just an absolute best friend.”

Thomson remembered when O’Brien took it upon himself to expand the town’s one ballfield into several, including soccer, softball and baseball fields.

“He had an idea if you level it out you could put fields here, here and here,” Thomson said. “It was all him who got that going and did most of the excavation.”

O’Brien began working on the Orford Community Field in the late 1970s and years later the baseball field was named for him.

His skills with heavy equipment were legendary and he was often hired to build log landings or do stream crossings. He spent many hours the last few years building walking trails on the family property.

“He could see and knew how to make land work,” said his sister-in-law Fleming.

The O’Briens also had a tree farm. John was a state and local tree farm inspector and was National Outstanding Tree Farm Inspector of the year in 1998. At Christmas time, people could come and cut their own tree and O’Brien, as was his nature, added something extra for families.

“He would put out cookies, make a fire and put out hot dogs for people to roast,” Fleming said.

Wendy Scribner of Dover, N.H., is a Carroll County Extension Forester. She knew O’Brien from their work together on the New Hampshire Tree Farm program, which has about 1,400 tree farmers with a total of 450,000 acres.

“She said O’Brien was “really the heart and soul” of the program for decades.

“As a volunteer, he worked tirelessly with our volunteer core of Tree Farm Inspectors to ensure that our landowners were managing their lands sustainably. His dedication and enthusiasm for the NH Tree Farm Program was infectious,” Scribner said.

Someone so well known around his community may give the impression that O’Brien always stood out at any gathering.

“That wasn’t my dad,” said daughter Megan. “He was never close to the loudest person in the room. He was the man with the kind greeting and the warm smile; the constant presence who went out of his way to make everyone feel seen and appreciated.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com

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