Joe O’Brien — who joined the Bennington Fire Department in 1991 and held all positions including chief — looked like a rough, burly man on the outside, but beneath the surface he had a soft side.
“Our friends growing up were first afraid of dad,” said Jamie O’Brien, who is one of Joe’s four daughters in an email to the Ledger-Transcript. “But once they came over and actually met him they knew he wasn’t as scary as he looked, but instead he was this really nice man that would do anything for anybody, and some of them even went on to call him dad.”
She said he could be stern when the moment called for it, but also had a laugh that could shake an entire room.
O’Brien died unexpectedly of natural causes while he was working in Dover on Monday, Jan. 30. He was 54.
O’Brien grew up in Massachusetts with his mother, Eleanor, father, Robert, and sister, Doreen O’Brien.
“I remember when our parents brought him home to Marion Road,” Joe’s sister Doreen said in an eulogy read at his memorial service on Saturday. “And, as the story goes, I told them to ‘bring him back’ as I turned around and skipped down the hallway.”
But O’Brien was there to stay, and soon Doreen accepted him into the family lovingly nicknaming him “Jopey” or “Joey.”
“I knew I had a friend for life,” Doreen said about her brother.
Doreen told of the time when O’Brien was three years old and craving cookies.
“He put on his little bathrobe, went to the pantry, got the cookies and on the way out our dad asked him what he was doing and Joey said, ‘nothing,’” Doreen said. “So dad grabbed him in a hug and crushed all the cookies he had put in his pockets.”
O’Brien came back into the room and emptied the cookie crumbs from his pocket on to the bed and the two sat there and ate the crumbs together.
“Those were the best cookies we ever ate,” Doreen said.
Much later when Joe met his wife, Lori, the two lived in Massachusetts some time. Lori, who grew up in Antrim, disliked the area and longed to be in her home state. The couple eventually settled down in Bennington in 1989.
O’Brien grew to like the tight knit feel of a small community, how safe the area felt compared to other cities he had lived, and the fire department that became part of his extended family.
During his time on the department, O’Brien held all ranks available, including fire warden, EMT and chief. Jamie said her dad had planned to retire from the fire department this year, but had stayed on as a pump and truck operator, his favorite job to do on a fire scene.
In 1996, O’Brien launched a program called the Bennington Fire Explorers, which was aimed at providing young adults with the experience of being on a fire department.
Jamie said she and her twin sisters, Kathleen and Christine, participated in the program. Their younger sister Ashleigh was too young at the time to be involved, but tagged along to all the events.
“We operated just like the real department,” Jamie said. “We got to go on calls and do things like direct traffic, and clean up after the scene had been cleared safe.”
During the department’s annual Christmas dinner and Breakfast with Santa, O’Brien could be found behind the counter cooking.
O’Brien, who enjoyed cooking, was also passionate about Christmas. Those closest to him say he developed fascination with the holiday from an early age.
“His love of Christmas started when he was 8 months old,” Doreen said. “He loved to try to grab the ornaments and tinsel off the tree. He made his first outdoor Christmas decoration when he was in middle school. He made a huge box and drilled holes in it that spelled out Merry Christmas.”
She said each year he expanded on the tradition until the display grew big.
“He continued that tradition here in Bennington, making more outdoor displays, always bigger, brighter, and more elaborate,” she said.
For the past few years O’Brien musically synchronized the lights to music played on 89.3 FM. Jamie said her dad was an electrician by trade, which helped him with the lighting displays. He started dancing lights in 2009.
“He would spend many hours sitting on the computer programming the lights to dance to the songs,” Jamie said.
Last year he logged 120 hours just programming the show, she said. That didn’t include all the time it took to actually string the lights up and craft all of the different elements of the display.
“Many weekends I would find him sitting at the dining room table surrounded by wires, a soldering iron and a bunch of lights,” Jamie said. “It didn’t matter what time of year, he worked on them all year long.”
The O’Briens are now coping with life without Joe.
“Now our world will be a little dimmer, our laughter will be a little slower, but each day will bring us more memories and will comfort us when we feel lost,” Doreen said.
Lori said she misses the small things about her husband.
She said she misses their daily lunch calls when they would talk with their three grandchildren, Cyril, Fergus and Izzabell, and update her on how his day going.
“As weird as this sounds I miss telling him to use a coaster, or telling him to put the Christmas stuff away. Even, ‘hey did you clean out your work van?’” Lori said.
Abby Kessler can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 234.