Mike O’Brien stands out as one of my best friends. It would have made some sense for us to be a couple for more than the few months that we hung out with each other, but there was just something about Mike’s personality, his exuberant self-confidence and drive that I couldn’t match.
I’m not exactly sure how we met. Mike was a unique visitor to the Thomas More College dorm. He seemed to always be there, but he didn’t live there! He lived just a few miles away, but had made friends with Kathy and Mary Jo, two dorm students a year ahead of me. I would see him with the two women joking and making plans, there in the lobby of the dorm. There was something attractive about Mike’s energy and relationship with Kathy. She was considerably taller than he. Mike was just 5’7” tall, but filled the room with his dynamic presence.
He was always talking about “the store”, the neighborhood market where he worked in addition to his full class schedule as a Biology major. Like I said, I don’t know what sparked our relationship, I remember riding down the hill from the suburban campus into downtown Covington with him and Chris, who were getting local jobs for the summer and looking for an apartment. It may have detracted from their appeal to a potential landlord to have a woman tagging along with them, but they did get the place, a run down second story flat on Russell Street in an old neighborhood.
I was surprised by a piece of mail that I received at my summer job at Girl Scout Camp. At first, I couldn’t tell who had sent it! I couldn’t tell if it was a joke, either! There in an envelope was the back of a Cap’n Crunch cereal box emblazoned with a treasure map or some game appropriate for the back of a cereal box. It was enhanced by a personal note that I finally figured out was from Mike! He wanted to visit me at camp! “That’s pretty cool,” I thought. “Someone from my school community wanted to connect with me!” I contacted Mike and we arranged for him to meet me at the camp, about 2 hours’ drive from his Covington apartment. I had 24 hours off.
He was disappointed to learn that no visitors were allowed to hang out at camp during our time off. I think he had planned on getting a nice day off in the woods. I had wanted to get away. We didn’t really have a plan, though, so he drove me back to his place in Covington. I hadn’t been prepared for being so tired after my first few weeks at camp! To his increased dismay, I just wanted to take a nap! And I slept for a few hours, there in his hot apartment! Eventually, he suggested that we go out for a movie, which we did after he showed me around Devou Park, his favorite place in town, where he had created a summer program for kids. We spent a couple of hours in a movie theater, watching a movie I don’t remember, before Mike drove me back out to the camp, making his second 180-mile round trip of the day.
To my surprise, Mike still wanted to spend time with me when I got back to school late in August! That’s the time my mom had refused to take me. Mike was busy with a major project. He had initiated a festival on the campus that would take place in mid-September. He was basically single-handedly directing a weekend long event called the Music and Arts Fair. I didn’t get involved with it. I didn’t even volunteer to help with it, just watched him buzz around organizing and getting things done.
Somehow on the Saturday evening of the event, I wanted to wait for him and say, “That was amazing.” So I did. Then, we spent the night together in his bed – with our clothes on! The next day, I had to get up early and get back to my own room because my parents were visiting and going to Mass with me! After Mass, we walked around the Fair together, and I bought a beautiful, carved candle as a gift for my mom. She cherished it, lighting only when someone special was visiting, making it last many years!
Mike started including me in his life. We visited his family a few times, and I got to see “the store”. Mike also introduced me to the science teacher at the nearby girls’ Academy where he was doing some student teaching. That semester I had added Education classes to my schedule, realizing that I did NOT want to choose laboratory work or pre-med for my Biology specialty. I wanted to be with PEOPLE!
Classrooms, however, made me feel claustrophobic and limited. I wanted to be outdoors! It was a great coincidence that at this same time, Mike was getting excited about his conversations with Dr. Tibbetts, the new Dean of Education. He would get into long descriptions about how Dr. Tibbetts was designing a new way of designing lesson plans using his NCOA (Needs, Competencies, Objectives, Actions) assessment. That was all a bit laborious for me, but within it was something that caught my attention – the growing opportunity within Education to have “outdoor classrooms.” Now, THAT was an idea I could go along with.
Mike and I spent some time dreaming up outdoor education ideas, which I could enhance with my experiences at Girl Scout Camp. Mike helped me set up an internship with his science teacher friend at the girls academy. During the next few months, I borrowed Mike’s car once a week and drove over there. The teachers turned me loose with their classes to go learn outdoors. When I look back, I am stunned that they let me take their classes outside, walking around the pond and through the field, with no other chaperone! At the time, I thought nothing of it, though, just how wonderful it was to get to teach the kids outside!
Once, Mike’s car wouldn’t start when I was ready to leave. Fortunately, another student teacher, Chris, was there at the same time, and I could get a ride back to the College with her. That evening, Mike and I borrowed another car and went back to get his vehicle. He showed me how he got it started by making sure some wires were connected! Now why couldn’t I have done that?!!
The following year, when Mike was a senior, we wrote up a proposal for using the back acreage of the campus for an outdoor education program that we thought would be the most fantastic thing ever! We presented it to a panel of professors, probably the College Board, which was a pretty monumental thing for me to do! I felt honored to be a colleague with Mike in one of his projects, because he was an impressive innovator. This was one time that his innovation was not supported, however, even though several of the faculty liked the general idea. We didn’t realize that the campus had already been destined to be populated with office buildings, a much more lucrative use than our nature preserve. Now, when I return to visit the TMC campus, I remember its alluring beauty and fascination as a natural area. All of that is just a memory covered over with office buildings!
Mike and I drifted apart, and he dated Faye during his senior year. He graduated a year earlier than I did and followed our passion for outdoor education by joining the staff at Glen Helen Outdoor Education Center for a couple of years. The following Spring, he and his colleagues hosted another innovative event, a New Games Tournament, a crowd event featuring the cooperative games described in The New Games Book. The Glen Helen staff had invited thousands of people, including all the other Outdoor Education centers for miles around. My colleagues at Woodland Altars wanted to go, of course, so we all showed up together to play group games where “everyone plays, no one gets hurt.”
During a lull in the games, Mike pulled me aside and said, “There’s someone here I want you to meet.” He introduced me to a very tall, dark curly-headed man, seated on the ground in his denim overalls. “I want you to meet my friend, John Reiter. He’s a reporter at The Kentucky Post. He’s really interested in solar energy, like you!” I talked with John for a few minutes, and got his address. Over the next several weeks, we exchanged letters about our mutual interest in the Solar Energy movement.
Later that month, I had more conversations with Mike, and let him talk me into coming to Covington for the summer to lead another brainchild of his – the Youth Conservation Program. Together with his friend from Glen Helen, Miriam, I fulfilled his dream to have teenagers from the inner city working and learning in the 500-acre Devou Park on the outskirts of town. Mike had already started his Master’s work at the University of Cincinnati, so he turned the program over to us to facilitate after he set it up with the City of Covington.
He also suggested that Miriam and I share the house with the same John Reiter I had met at The New Games Tournament. The house John rented from another reporter, Tom Scheffey, was conveniently located just a mile from Devou Park. There was plenty of room for us and John seemed congenial, so we moved in.
Mike continued to support us during the summer as we managed our group of 20 or so teenagers. We successfully built a nature trail, taught the kids about Nature and conservation, and helped them earn a little money while spending time outdoors. He couldn’t spend unlimited time with us, however, because in addition to his classes at the University, he was also spending time with a very special woman, Beverly.
Meanwhile, John Reiter and I started playing Scrabble together, cooking meals, and going out for breakfast at a restaurant called The Saucy Crepe. By the end of the summer, we were a couple, and I cried when he dropped me off at the house I would share with Nan DeWire for my continued employment at Woodland Altars.
Mike had introduced us, and 18 months later stood as our Best Man at our outdoor wedding. Mike, and now his wife, Bev, have remained a lifelong friends, even though we have lived and worked in different parts of the country. I have him to thank for nurturing the spark of outdoor education and drawing me into his innovations at just the right times!
Mike has continued professionally in his innovative leadership. He has his own company that trains, supports, and coaches leaders in the healthcare industry.
And, he’s put his wisdom about leadership, that I experienced in its development, in a book: