Good-Bye Ron O’Brien

by Terry Ryder, March 15, 2017

March 10, 1938 - December 16, 2016

A large group of friends and family turned out to celebrate the life of Ron O’Brien on Saturday March 11th at the Grange Hall in Philo. Ron would probably have been surprised and bemused to see how many people cared about him. String music drifted through the hall as Brian Wood, Alan Kendall and Charlie Hochberg helped us settle into our seats. Things got off to a punctual 4 PM start as close family friend Kathy Borst reminded us that she and Mary O’Brien are retired schoolteachers who “start on time”. There were probably enough teachers in the audience to start a school. The three largest contingents were Ron’s family (gathering from many states); people Ron made music with and school staffers.  Given Ron’s eclectic tastes there were also many unclassifiable attendees in a Mendocino free-style. As a poet Ron left some memorable parts of himself behind. Those who came to the podium were artfully matched to poems and they all made us either laugh or cry.

First up was son Aaron O’Brien who told us his Dad was very spiritual but that he liked to have fun. As an inner city teacher Aaron reflected on how lucky he was to have a dad who was “The greatest man I ever knew” while so many kids have no dad at all.

“He strove to make others comfortable”. The poem he read “Drivin’ Wheel” included the refrain, “The Train’s the music and the heart’s the driving wheel.” In closing he remembered the last time he saw his Dad when he was very present and “He got into his boxing stance and threw a few punches at me. He’s in a better place, it was his time and he had a great run, he achieved his dreams.”

Next up was Jon Solow piano player and long-time musical partner of Ron’s who played some tunes, one a musical version of the “Drivin’ Wheel” poem. He also played “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn; commenting “While Ron was not a lush he did have a positive relationship with spirits…both kinds. His life was lush the way a lilac bush with beautiful blossoms is lush. He didn’t talk about being spiritual but just looking into his eyes you could tell.” While Jon spoke Captain Rainbow sat pensively, soberly. A man usually so animated, it was clear he was turning over thoughts of Ron, thoughts of all of us passing. Jon played from memory such sweet, and faintly melancholy songs very like Ron.

At another table Dr. Mark Apfel sat listening with his head in his hands no doubt filled with so many Anderson Valley memories. The eternally youthful Dean Titus looking older for a moment sat quietly with Susan Clarke by his side. Annie Stenerson wore her super-duper all wire cowboy hat sculpted by Ismael Sanchez to honor the day.

Kathy Cox read “So Gather Together” such an appropriate choice for a woman who believes so strongly in community.  Kathy said among many other things, “He lived and died gracefully.”

Mary’s brother Creighton Hardin read “Dysert O’Dea”  with memories of a trip to Ireland where Ron’s knowledge of the Irish and the O’Brien’s in particular was awe inspiring. Son Sam said about the gathering, “Pops would have really liked it”. He read “Dinosaur Man”, “I’m the last of the breed that still fills the need, I’m a dinosaur man” Sam signed off with, “Hey guys, thanks a lot and we’ll keep this party rolling.”

Janet Unterman long time friend of Mary’s read “Miss Manzanita” which seemed suspiciously like a tribute to wife Mary, “You’re my choice today, you’re beautiful and thorny to my touch…”

Then Mary’s other brother Dan Hardin read “Machine” after relating how he came to California with nothing but two dogs, a truck and a box of tools. Ron talked him into spending an entire fall in his Dad’s open-air garage rebuilding Dan’s truck. This poem ended pungently with the line, “Ford you should be hung for making a car into a pile of dung.”

A wonderful film picture montage put together by Anderson Valley’s video wunderkind Julia Brock showed Ron’s life in all it’s stages made many of us think of the broad sweep our own lives will encompass.

To cap the memorial portion of the day KXYZ-tet Jon Solow, Dan McDonnell and Alice Woelfle-Erskine played. Alice’s plaintive trombone spoke directly to and with our hearts. Then we drank and ate, and talked and laughed and cried. And drank and ate and laughed and cried some more. Bob Day, Erica Zissa, Nadia Berrigan, Kevin Burke, Dan McDonnell and Sharon Gardner got us going into the party mode. Pilar Duran and Jennifer Schmitt rocked us then the Pit band including Greg Krouse, Dennis Hudson, Dan McDonnell, Lynn Archambault, Gregory Sims, and Kevin Burke kept us going until Dean Titus and Susan Clarke were ready to sweetly take us on.

Finally Joe Blow took over with Steve Derwinski at the helm and Jeff Moss, John McCallister and Lee McEwen. Many others volunteered or donated – it was a real down home, grass roots coming together. The food by Boont Berry was tasty and fortifying. Spirits flowed freely and blunted some of the sorrow the way they are supposed to.

Thank you Mary O’Brien for orchestrating in honor of your husband and thank you Ron for being you. One final poem called, “Untitled, As It Should Be” by Ron O’Brien – “Only two things I do regular in life Play Music and make love to my wife.”  Good-Bye and God Bless, Ron.

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