Rest in Peace, John O'Brien

[Note: Friends of Justice is a personal blog. I speak only for myself.]

John A. O’Brien
Of Roxbury, formerly of Malden, of pancreatic cancer, at age 78, March 5. Beloved husband of Gwen (Moore) O’Brien. Former husband of Elizabeth (Prince) O’Brien of Melrose & beloved father of their children, the late James of Malden, the late Daniel of Malden, Thomas of Oneonta, NY, David of Amherst, MA & Ellen of Roslindale, MA. Devoted grandfather to Christopher, Timothy, Daniel & Haley & father-in-law of Theresa, all of Oneonta, NY. Also former husband of Olive Silva of Swampscott, MA. There will be two memorial gatherings: At the Community Church of Boston, Copley Square (565 Boylston Street) on Saturday, March 15 at 10AM, and at the Malden Public Library Fri., March 28 at 2pm. Donations in John’s memory may be made to the James & Daniel O’Brien Fund at the Malden Public Library, 36 Salem St., Malden, MA 02148.
Published in the Boston Globe on 3/6/2008.

One of the great rewards I have had since beginning my criminal-justice work a dozen years or so ago has been the truly wonderful people I have come to know.

Many of these people were in their 70s and 80s when I first met them and unfortunately many are now gone: Herbert Aptheker, Fred Lubet, Dan Finneran, Stewart Washburn, and others.

My friend John O’Brien has now joined them.

For a great many years, John taught English at Malden public high school. Among his pupils were both Gerald and Cheryl Amirault. (

Because John knew the Amiraults, he knew from the start how ridiculous were the charges against them.

I got to know John on visits to Gerald Amirault in prison. When he learned about the tragic case of Bernard Baran, he became an avid supporter (and frequent visitor) of Bee as well.

While far from a wealthy man, John also contributed generously to the efforts to free the falsely accused and wrongfully imprisoned.

John was amazingly good company. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was an incomparable story teller. He was also a talented actor and playwright. Many of his stories were drawn from his decades of experience in the classroom and in the theater.

I remember the night that Jim and I took Cheryl Amirault to see John in a production of Glengarry Glenross. She got to see her old English teacher spout language I’m sure he never used in the classroom.

The last time I saw John was but a few months ago when I attended what turned out to be the last reading of one of his plays. John was frail but in his usual great spirits. He held his own during the question-and-answer session that followed the reading.

And he told a story that I hadn’t heard him tell before. Since it is the last story I heard John tell, I will attempt to repeat it. I won’t try telling it in the first person, however, because I could never capture John’s voice.

When John taught English in Malden, one play he taught every year was Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. John loved that play and his lifelong dream was to someday play Willy Loman.

After he retired, he began auditioning for local small-theater groups. Eventually, he found one casting Death of a Salesman. He auditioned and became ecstatic when he was given the lead.

John worked hard through weeks of rehearsals and, when opening night finally came, he felt he had mastered the role.

John was to make his entrance down the center aisle from the back of the auditorium. As he was concentrating his attention, he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a woman he’d never seen before in his life who said to him:

“That will be five dollars please.”

-Bob Chatelle