As a young man, Peter O’Brien left his home in Northern Ireland to work at the shipyards in the Channel Islands. There, Irish and Scottish workers spun tales of America as a land of opportunity, a place where “everyone had cars.” Mr. O’Brien eagerly accepted driving lessons on his days off, hoping to soon be driving in a new country.
After immigrating to the U.S. in the 1950’s, Mr O’Brien would later marry and go on to teach his children, grandchildren and dozens of Irish immigrants how to drive, giving them a sense of freedom in their new country.
Sometimes, though, his gift wasn’t teaching someone to drive but doing the driving himself. When his sister-in-law’s husband fell into a diabetic coma, he drove her to the VA hospital to see him — every day, for more than three months, until he died.
Anne Cotter, Mr. O’Brien’s youngest daughter, said her father would come home after work, grab a sandwich to go, then head back out to pick up his sister-in-law. He just wanted to make sure her husband wasn’t alone, she said.
Mr. O’Brien was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1929. When his parents died before he reached the age of 5, Mr. O’Brien and his two siblings were sent to live with distant Irish cousins on a small farm in Armagh, Northern Ireland.
Throughout his life, Mr. O’Brien celebrated both his Scottish and Irish heritage.
Growing up, he and the other seven children working the farm used the cows’ milk in their oatmeal, which they had to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner during the Great Depression.
When he immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1950s he worked as a self-taught accountant and secured a job at Sears, where he remained for 30 years.
Mr. O’Brien later worked downtown at the reception desk of a health club just off the Magnificent Mile, where he conversed with many famous visitors, including actor Mr. T and the Rev. Wilton Gregory, who went on to become America’s first Black cardinal.
Mr. O’Brien, who lived in Rolling Meadows, died of heart failure on Feb. 23 at Northwest Community Hospital, just one week after receiving his first COVID-19 vaccine dose. He was 91.
“Pete was a victim of COVID-19 in so many ways,” Cotter said. “It was sad to see him deprived of some of the things he most loved.”
Before the pandemic, Cotter said Mr. O’Brien exercised three times a week; he’d been going to the same gym for 20 years. He also spent a lot of time driving around in his red Jeep Liberty, visiting friends and relatives.
Every summer, Cotter said, they would go to the Scottish Highland Games at the Oak Brook Polo Grounds to taste Scotch whisky, watch competitors throw haggis and listen to a symphony of bagpipes.
Longtime friend Jim Martin met Mr. O’Brien on vacation in Toronto in 1961. Martin said Mr. O’Brien was a “marvelous ballroom dancer” who spent his Sunday nights at the Irish American Heritage Center or other dance clubs or church halls, making sure all the women got a chance to dance.
His favorite song was “The Fields of Athenry,” and it was through his love for traditional Irish Ceili music and dancing that Mr. O’Brien met his wife, Mary. The two were introduced by Martin, and Cotter said their courtship was short and covert, consisting of dances and meetings at various family and church events.
They married in 1974, and Mr. O’Brien adopted her children, John, Anne and Maureen Cotter, who later was a copy editor and assistant city editor at the Sun-Times.
Anne Cotter said because of Mr. O’Brien, all three children were able to earn advanced degrees and pursue their chosen careers. Mr. O’Brien later drained his life’s savings taking care of his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer’s for about nine years before she died in 2012.
“Had Pete not entered our lives, the trajectory would have been so very different,” she said. “Pete stepped in, in every way, shape and form — paying for college, repairing [cars], putting down deposits on apartments. There was never a thing he didn’t sacrifice.”
Mr. O’Brien was the chauffeur who drove his daughters to high school dances, roller rink outings and lessons with Irish-American dancer Michael Flatley, a choreographer and performer on the stage show Riverdance.
When Anne Cotter’s son Ryan Minato was attending Northern Illinois University, he lived at home and didn’t have a car. His grandfather drove him to campus several times a week and then waited for several hours nearby with a coffee and a newspaper until Minato finished his classes.
“He literally carried him through that college graduation,” Cotter said. “I’m not exaggerating that. He took pleasure in other people’s successes.”
Minato said Mr. O’Brien was his “hockey buddy,” and they would watch every Blackhawks game in the living room, with the large TV resting on a matching wooden stand that O’Brien cut and painted himself.
“I can say that the guy is my best friend,” Minato said.
In addition to his three children, Mr. O’Brien is survived by his sister, Kathleen Lee; five grandchildren; and many nieces and nephews.
Funeral services have been held, but his family hopes to gather this summer for a proper memorial.