Kind man, big heart: The late Edward R. O’Brien Jr. was known for his way as a sports official

Ed O’Brien Jr. fires his starter’s pistol to begin a race during the Negaunee Lions Girls Invitational high school track and field meet in May 2008. (Journal file photo)

MARQUETTE — As we now have just passed the midpoint of the high school football season, several area residents are looking back on the life of the late Edward R. O’Brien Jr.

O’Brien, 74, died on Aug. 17, exactly a week before the start of this fall’s high school season, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, near his most recent home of Pulaski, Wisconsin.

O’Brien was a longtime supporter of youth sports in Marquette County, including spending more than three decades there as a high school football referee.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg for him.

“He was active as a referee in football, basketball and volleyball,” said Bob Anthony of Marquette, a member of his football refereeing crew for a number of years. Anthony is also a retired principal at Marquette Senior High School.

Track and field starter Ed O'Brien fires a gun at the start of a relay during the Negaunee Lions Girls Invitational meet in May 2008. (Journal file photo)

O’Brien might’ve been best known, especially by those a bit younger than contemporaries, as a starter who fired the pistol for running events at area track and field meets up until about 8 to 10 years ago.

That’s a position that draws a lot of attention from the noise it makes by anyone near the track.

“He was a really good starter,” Anthony said. “And he was amazing as an umpire on the football crew.

“He’d get right behind the defensive line. You have to be quick or you’ll get run over.

“He was willing to talk to players, explaining what they needed to do or not do that made a play legal.

“He had a good way with kids. He knew how to talk to them. Say, if a kid was swearing on the field, he would say, ‘I used to be a priest and those words burn my ears.’

“He would’ve been refereeing out there eight days a week if he could.”

This kind of service went way back to his youth.

“He was a heckuva guy as far back as I can remember,” said Mark Marana, currently principal at Negaunee High School who has served in a number of other positions in the past, including as athletic director at NHS.

“I didn’t know him growing up, but I knew about him because he played football for my dad in the (19)60s.

“He was a Little League coach in Ishpeming and we kind of connected, myself and Mike DellAngelo. He got us to help him coach the team while were going to Northern (Michigan University).”

That would have been in the late 1970s after Marana graduated from Ishpeming High School in 1976.

“We didn’t get to know him till then, but then I continued to know Ed through officiating.

“He had a great passion for athletics and a great passion for kids and athletes. He just loved to be around the games and the athletes.

“He really loved being a role model for young kids; that was extremely important to him.

“He was type of guy who didn’t have an enemy in the world. It was just that type of personality he had.”

He’d also bend over backwards to help out schools.

“He did a lot of track when I was athletic director (at Westwood High School),” Gordon Chinn said. “The last three years I was AD, he did every one of our track meets when we had a lot of them, and also a lot of cross country meets.

“He was always willing to fill in on short notice if somebody couldn’t make it. It didn’t matter if it was cold, wet, he was always there. The weather didn’t affect him.”

O’Brien and Chinn graduated from Ishpeming High School in 1962.

“In high school he was a pretty good athlete, and he had the type of personality that was easy to coach, easy to get along with.”

And finally, O’Brien was also a kind-hearted man away from the sports field.

“He helped so many people in the community. He was one of those unsung heroes,” said Gail Anthony, Bob Anthony’s wife who is CEO of the Community Foundation of Marquette County.

“He was very active with food pantries and the TV6 Canathon,” Bob Anthony said. “He not only collected the food but helped out with the distribution of it.”

Gail Anthony said that O’Brien would go around to all the school districts and make sure they had collection boxes for donations to the food bank.

And Gail Anthony had her own personal story about O’Brien.

“We know Eddie when Bob and I came to town as students (at NMU) in 1985.

“A few years later after Bob got a job at Marquette Senior High School, the teachers had gone on strike. We weren’t in dire straits, but Eddie came over to our house with two big bags of groceries as Bob wasn’t getting paid during the strike.

“That was just how Eddie thinks. He would think of things ahead of time … what a kind and gentle man he was.”

O’Brien’s survivors include his wife Delma, whom he married in 1965, three children and six grandchildren.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is