David Hunter O’Brien 1932-2019 (H 45-51)
The OS Club is sad to announce the death of David O’Brien, who passed away in April. He was 86 years old. A former pupil, parent, Governor and constant supporter of the School, his passing is a loss to all. Please see below for an edited tribute written by his son, Sir Stephen O’Brien, KBE (H 70-75).
David Hunter O’Brien was born on 21st June 1932 – as he would never cease to remind us, with his ready grin and glint in his eye, ‘the longest day in the year’, so, of course, the longest birthday every year!
Born and brought up in Kendal, their home being just across the River Kent from the ‘Works’, the engineering-based firm known as ‘I Bees’ or IBIS, in which the O’Brien family were strongly engaged, he attended Castle Street Elementary School. At the outbreak of the Second World War, aged 7, he followed his brother to Terrington Prep School near York. David would say that he felt that he had been fairly sheltered from war and bombing given where his home and boarding school were, but he recalled that he and his young schoolmates would hear the Lancaster Bombers passing overhead at night en route over the North Sea – they would say nothing to each other; but at breakfast in the morning they were all quiet, counting how many returned.
Just as the war ended, he went on to Sedbergh School, rising to be Head of Hart House. These 6 years were to be the first chapter in a deep enduring loyalty and involvement with Sedbergh, both town and gown. As a pupil, parent, Governor, grand-parent, countless Remembrance Day services at the Cloisters, initiating the 10-mile Day course walk, concerts, social and sporting events, and the Sedbergh Choral Society – his care and love for the people and institution were woven into him as he into them with the deepest of mutual respect.
Whilst at Sedbergh he remembered being very hungry – there still being rationing post-War, referring to supper sometimes being one pilchard on a plate. It was there that he had to endure cricket – I say endure, as he never complained and made no allowances to himself, and was never given any quarter by his own family, teachers or others, but he only ever saw though his left eye, having been blind in his right eye since birth – something that was discovered when he was a toddler.
But at Sedbergh here amid the Howgills and the Lakeland Fells, which he walked and climbed for decades and loved so much, and the sheer beauty of all that we are surrounded by today, David started to realise his talent as an accomplished sketcher, drawer and painter in most mediums and skilled in capturing landscapes and objects, and notably fine portraits with deep insight into character. He loved his art and there are many wonderful creations that adorn the walls of the family’s homes. He certainly had an exquisite artist’s eye and he mastered the art of perspective, notwithstanding the greater challenge than most he had successfully to overcome.
Long before Cambridge, where he went to Clare College to study History with English, David had met Ann Rothwell, always known as Rothy, her school nickname which has stuck ever since. It was David’s good fortune that, being a good school-friend of Clare, his younger sister, Rothy would often come out from school with Clare in those teen years and sure enough met Clare’s good-looking older brother. As he turned 23, he left for East Africa from Tilbury Docks, seen off by his parents Mandy and Dandy and his fiancée, Rothy, for his first 3 year tour as cadet District Officer in Mtwara, Southern Province, Tanganyika (Tanzania today). No home leave for 3 years and young officers weren’t meant to be married in their first tour. Then in February 1956, having got special permission, he sent a cable out of the blue to Rothy (now a Nursing Sister at the Westmorland County Hospital), simply stating: “Come. Repeat come. David”; not ‘Love David’. As Rothy later found out that extra word would have cost another shilling, a lot from his meagre £75 a year salary. Matching his adventuresome spirit, she went – 7 weeks by ship; and then they were married in the Indian Ocean coastal fishing town of Mtwara in a Mission Church on 3rd April 1956 – a mud a wattle hut, with a sandy floor, and a wind-up gramophone for ‘Here Comes the Bride’. They spent their honeymoon in the foothills of Kilimanjaro at the other end of the country. David has been devoted to her ever since, and she to him. As many of your letters have said, they were a Team, a lovely, lifelong team. Once they were back on their first long home leave in 1958, they could see independence coming to Tanganyika sooner than had been forecast, so David resigned and they returned to England.
In 1969 David was asked to join IBIS in Kendal as a Director with the brief to diversify product lines and develop overseas markets. This happily coincided with both of their hearts’ desire to come back to their beloved Lake District. So we came to our really delightful and beautiful home, High Cleabarrow near Windermere – a conversion and restoration project they threw themselves into – but above all a genuine, warm (when the heating was on) family home, ever hosting our wider family and so many friends of all generations as a hub of welcome and hospitality. And a garden in which David’s many hives and beekeeping skills advanced, not least resulting in lots of tasty honey harvest most years. He became a leading light in the Westmorland Beekeepers’ Association (with Rothy as Honorary Queen Bee) and found himself called out occasionally to deal with swarms night and day, so his beekeeping kit and headnets were always in the boot of his car. He brought his hives to Dent and enjoyed the bees amongst these fells until only a few years ago. A true hobbyist and enthusiast – including sailing the family GP dinghy on Windermere. And always prepared to ‘give it a go’ – an inspiration and example we all gained by. And that manifested itself in his intense enjoyment of skiing when, in the 1970s, we went to the Alps, including initiating himself and me into ski-touring hut to hut across the roof of the Alps, roped together across perilous avalanche-prone slopes and crevasses – a chance for us to have an intensity of relationship built on his adventuresome courage, example and sheer good company.
After 10 years at IBIS, the Division that David had created in only 6 years, IBIS Medical (supplying turnkey hospitals and equipment overseas), was awarded the Queen’s Award for Industry for Exports. However, only a few months later, the burdens on the mother engineering businesses overwhelmed it and IBIS Group ceased to exist. Disaster loomed. Mum opened High Cleabarrow as a Nursing Home. David became a Consultant, including travelling to Lagos, Bahrain and a year in Harare for the Ford Foundation for the rehabilitation of Zimbabweans who had suffered under the pre-independence regime. He was instrumental in the enterprising creation of the old Shell site in Trafford to today’s thriving Carrington Business Park. He was indefatigable. There were some very lean years. And it was at this time he was asked to become a Governor of Sedbergh School – despite the pressures on him, he chose to take on that voluntary responsibility and served spanning 3 headmasterships for 18 years with great distinction. It was in David’s strength of character that, even though his career turned out to be anything but plain sailing, he retained his dignity, had no self-pity, harboured no resentments, and had that wonderful unselfish ability to forgive and forget. That was also deeply appreciated by us children – when we overstepped the mark, there would be a flash of irritation or sharp word, and then it was over in a trice; forgiven and forgotten – but lesson learned!
In 1988, they left High Cleabarrow and came to The Wool Shop in Dent – embracing and being embraced by this wonderful Dentdale community for more than 30 years. They were soon enjoying a varied and busy life, with Mum running The Wool Shop.
Others have remarked how he was always immaculately turned out, be that in a jacket and tie, or with his brown apron on when fettling on in his workshop and around the house, or with hat and, more recently, stick, in his walking breeches, which he sported as much when visiting our families in London, Sussex, Yorkshire or Cheshire as he did when out on “The Fells that are all around us” – to quote a line from a Sedbergh School song.
As one who is with us here today has written:
‘David’s friendship, encouragement, wisdom, loyalty and desire always to do what was right and not follow popular prejudice or whim set him apart – to say nothing of the wonderful sense of humour which always accompanied his wisdom! It is his courage and strength of will in adversity, his indefatigable spirit and outstanding example of all that is honest, fair and ‘good’ which will now live on in those who were fortunate enough to know and respect him.’
A much and dearly loved and loving husband to Rothy; father to Clare-Marie, Karen and me; father-in-law to Gemma, William and Nicholas; grandfather to Harry and Tom, James, Angus and Clara; and Edward, William and Sam and most recently grandfather-in-law to Jo – he was so thrilled to see the first of his grandchildren to be married when we were all together for a happy, happy day at the beginning of September last year; together with his love and support for his and Mum’s wider families; and a wonderful friend to so many far and wide, and near, faithfully enduring over all the years.
David died in the full knowledge of the love of his family – and the many, many people whose lives he touched.