Longtime teacher brought the world into his classrooms

  • Richard O'Brien always welcomed Japanese exchange students into his class, as he did on this day in 2002.

    Richard O'Brien always welcomed Japanese exchange students into his class, as he did on this day in 2002. Courtesy of Gene Mayeda/District 214

By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 11/4/2015 7:59 PM

Richard O'Brien was a fixture at Sunny Hill Elementary School in Carpentersville, where he volunteered three days a week as a tutor and teacher's assistant.

It wasn't just academics that he strengthened. O'Brien liked to share stories of his international travels, teaching young students how to make paper cranes, using the ancient Japanese art of origami.


His love of the Japanese art form stemmed from his 28 years as a social studies teacher, first at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and from 1991-2009 at Elk Grove High School, where he was a big promoter of the school's biannual Japanese exchange program.

O'Brien, a Barrington resident, died on Oct. 31 after a long battle with multiple sclerosis. He was 65.

"There's a real sadness in the building," said Irma Bates, principal of Sunny Hill School. "He worked faithfully with our kids, sitting in the hallway, listening to them read, asking great questions and just being a really good mentor."

O'Brien came by his interest in world cultures, naturally. As the son of an Army officer, he was born in Panama and attended high school in West Germany.

When he arrived at Elk Grove High School, O'Brien quickly embraced the fairly new Japanese exchange program started by fellow social studies teacher, Cliff Darnall. One year after joining the staff, he volunteered as lead chaperon for their trip to Japan.

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"In his social studies classes, he would have his students write out large placards with each Japanese student's name on it," Darnall says. "During the Student Council's welcome assembly, he would have his students wave their placard in enthusiastic support as each Japanese student was introduced."

Darnall's counterpart in Japan, Teruo Yamaguchi, remembered how 20 years ago O'Brien and his wife, Mary Lou, persisted in trying to secure Chicago Bulls tickets so the Japanese students could experience a game and superstar Michael Jordan.

"Thanks to their hard work, our visiting group was able to enjoy an exciting Bulls' game at the United Center and had wonderful memories," Yamaguchi wrote. "I'll never forget that story."

Within months of retiring from full-time teaching, O'Brien turned to HandsOn Suburban Chicago, based in Arlington Heights and its Senior Corps-RSVP, a portal for volunteer opportunities for adults over 55.


The nonprofit organization typically draws more than 800 volunteers from Northwest suburban Cook and northern DuPage counties.

O'Brien chose to volunteer in education and eagerly accepted his first assignment at Sunny Hill. He never left.

Over his years at the school, he accrued more than 1,000 hours of volunteering, and he also filled in as needed at Barrington High School, doing everything from serving as a debate judge to helping with mailings.

His enthusiasm and commitment to helping students at Sunny Hill School drew him to be nominated in 2011 for one of the HandsOn Suburban Chicago Impact Awards, for his "inspirational achievement."

O'Brien is survived by his wife, Mary Lou, children Heather (Greg) Sherwin of Vernon Hills and Matthew (Mindy) O'Brien of Rolling Meadows, and five grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his son, Richard.

Visitation will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. Thursday at Davenport Family Funeral Home and Crematory, 149 W. Main St., Barrington. A 10 a.m. funeral Mass will be held Friday at St. Anne Catholic Church, 120 Ela St., also in Barrington.

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