Joe O'Brien: A man of wit, civil service, who rarely said no


Those who knew him well remember Joseph O’Brien for his ability to make people laugh — even in the high-stakes world of 1970s newspapering.

But he also was a devoted father and a loyal friend, said his daughter, Casey O’Brien Schwarz.

A newsman who later served as deputy press secretary to Mayor Edward Koch before becoming communications director for U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, O’Brien died Feb. 7 at a hospice facility in New Jersey. He was 79.

“My father was a really funny, smart guy,” Schwarz said. “He was that kind of guy who, his wit and his intelligence, you had to look it up sometimes, and then you would realize, ‘Wow, that was very clever,’ — how he would string things together. I’d have to look up everything because he had so many references to art and political figures, making these analogies.”

Duke Coffey, a friend of O’Brien’s for 48 years, worked with him at United Press International in the 1970s.

“We hit it off instantaneously,” Coffey said. “He was extremely witty. He was renowned for his sense of humor. And he also had a very good news sense.”

Back then, the two biggest wire services were UPI and the Associated Press, Coffey said. Eventually, UPI faded from the scene, becoming a web-based service — “a shadow of its former self.”

“But back then, it was head-to-head competition,” Coffey said. “It was very intense business. Working in a newsroom, it was a central hub for these bureaus all over the world, and literally anything could happen at any minute. You’d be on the general desk one minute, working on some major crime story in the Midwest. Then, all of a sudden, they get word that, for instance, Pope John Paul II was shot at.”

At times, this could make for a tense atmosphere, Coffey said. But that didn’t faze O’Brien.

“One of the hallmarks of Joe was not only his ability to keep his head in these situations, but to kind of keep the rest of us on an even keel,” Coffey said. “He certainly kept the atmosphere light — and professional, to say the least.”

But the grind of the news business can take a toll on even the sturdiest souls, and it would seem even a highly regarded newsman like O’Brien may not have been completely immune to its wear and tear.

“There’s more to life than journalism,” Coffey said. “Eating and having a roof over your head come to mind instantly.”

A longtime Bronx resident, O’Brien would serve as Koch’s deputy press secretary from 1979 to 1985 — an “experience,” Coffey said, because “Koch was a wild character in himself” — followed by a lengthy career in public relations for the city transportation department, the Human Resources Administration, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. 

And, he was the long-time spokesman for Engel beginning in 1996 until he retired in 2013.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing of my dear friend,” Engel said in a statement. “Everyone who ever met Joe knew he was one-of-a-kind. An old newspaper man by trade, Joe was a tremendously talented writer and gifted communicator, whose work as director of public affairs in my office for 17 years was sterling.”

Talented as he was as a newsman and communications director, Engel saw O’Brien’s greatest strengths elsewhere.

“It was Joe’s personality that really shined brightest,” Engel said. “He had a warmth and sense of humor that was second-to-none. Nobody could light up the room with a joke or quick-witted comment like Joe.”

Bryant Daniels, an aide to Engel — and O’Brien’s replacement — knew him back when Daniels worked for Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz. It wasn’t until after O’Brien retired, however, that Daniels got to know him better.

“He would still come around all the time and say ‘hi,’” Daniels said. “I have his old office, and I’m doing his old job. He was a hilarious guy — one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Very down to earth, very sharp — a quick wit. He was really a talented writer. He was just a good guy. We lost a good one with him.”

After retiring in 2013, O’Brien joined CB8, chairing both the public safety and traffic and transportation committees.

“He was very well-read, professional, thorough, with a wonderful sense of humor,” said Rosemary Ginty, CB8’s chair, who not only served with O’Brien on the community board,  but also worked with him in the Koch administration. “When things got tense, he was a very calming influence. His sense of humor always carried all of us through.”

There was, however, one ongoing point of contention between the two.

“Unfortunately, he was a Boston Red Sox fan, and I’m a Yankees fan,” Ginty said. “So we always had a lot of fun back-and-forth with the baseball rivalry.” 

Besides his daughter, O’Brien also is survived by son Scott O’Brien of Pasadena, California; three grandchildren: Kaleb and Kaia O’Brien, and Leopold Schwarz; and brother Kenneth O’Brien of Crestwood. He lost both a brother, Thomas, and sister Marie in the past.

He was buried at St. Raymond’s Cemetery at 2600 Lafayette Ave.

Although Schwarz has many positive memories of her father, one trait that stands out the most for her was his unconditional support.

“When I told my father after I graduated college that I’m going to take this psychology degree and I’m not going to use it at all — I’m going to become a stunt woman — he just said, ‘OK,’” Schwarz recalled. 

“My father never said no to me — to show up to anything, or anything I wanted to do,” she said. “He said no three times to me, and one of them was, I was like, ‘You know, what about if we were jumping off bridges? Like the Brooklyn Bridge — that would be a lot of fun, dad — maybe I should start working on that skill.’ He’s like, ‘No. You cannot do that.’ And the joke was, with us, it’s like — you probably saved my life. Because the only time you said no to me, I listened.”