In his early 50s, Frank “Obie” O’Brien decided to take up running to try to get rid of a paunch stemming from rich foods and beer. And for the next three decades, he averaged about 20 5K and 10K races per year.
His favorite run, however, was of a much shorter and more enjoyable variety.
“There was a race where they would run two-tenths of a mile to a bar on the route and throw a quarter into a bucket and get a 5-ounce beer,” son Dennis F. O’Brien said. “After drinking it, they would run another two-tenths of a mile. It was like a mile and five beers. He loved it. … The race didn’t take that long, but the after-party probably lasted the rest of the day.”
Mr. O’Brien, a special agent for the IRS whose work contributed to the successful prosecution of Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, a former Baltimore County executive, for tax evasion in 1973, died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia Friday at Stella Maris nursing home in Timonium. He was 89.
“He was a great guy, a terrific guy,” said Joe O’Malley, who grew up in the Brooklyn Homes development of Baltimore with Mr. O’Brien. “He was a fun-loving guy, and he was just fun to be around.”
Mr. O’Brien was born in the Bronx in New York City but moved to Baltimore in 1943 with his father, William O’Brien, a decorative plasterer; his mother, the former Maria Callahan, a secretary; older half-sister, Sabina “Billie” O’Brien; and younger sister, Anne Jane O’Brien.
Dennis O’Brien said his father liked to revisit a memory of attending a neighborhood party and asking a girl to dance, but was rebuffed when she pointed out he was not Polish. At subsequent dances, he introduced himself as Bradislaw Gozelcheski, his son said.
A graduate of Calvert Hall College High School in 1949, Mr. O’Brien was an offensive lineman for the football team and befriended linemate George Young, who eventually became general manager of the New York Giants. Mr. Young, a Baltimore native who died in 2001, invited Mr. O’Brien to watch a Notre Dame football game at the Giants’ home stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
When the two dined at a restaurant before the game. Mr. O’Brien was mistaken for Giants owner Wellington Mara.
“He was a guy with white hair eating lunch with George Young,” Mr. O’Brien said of his father. “He kind of resembled him a little bit. Not a dead ringer, but enough that someone thought he was Wellington Mara. He got a kick out of it.”
After high school, Mr. O’Brien joined the Marines and served from January 1951 to January 1954 as a warehouseman. After being discharged as a buck sergeant, Mr. O’Brien married the former Louise Helewicz in February 1954 and attended the University of Baltimore on a combined GI bill and athletic scholarship for soccer and lacrosse.
While in school, he worked as a clerk at the 49er Bingo hall in Brooklyn Park and arranged for Mr. O’Malley to join him there in 1955. Mr. O’Malley, who married at the age of 20 and was forced to move himself and his young wife into his parents’ house, was grateful for his friend’s generosity.
“The money was very useful to me and very helpful to me,” Mr. O’Malley recalled. “That was a very important job for me as far as I was concerned because it gave me a little bit of money and I was still going to school at the same time.”
Dennis O’Brien said his birth Jan. 26, 1956, led his father to stay with him and his mother — who died Oct. 28, 2019 — for several days. Three days after his birth, a fire broke out during an oyster roast at Arundel Park, a popular hall and cocktail lounge, and killed 10 women and injured 230 people.
“He would say that me being born saved his life because he would have been there,” Mr. O’Brien said from his home in Fallston.
After graduating in 1958, Mr. O’Brien began working for the IRS, eventually rising to special agent for corporate audits. He worked on the case built against Mr. Agnew, who pleaded no contest to one felony charge of tax evasion, and was invited annually by Marvin J. Garbis, who went from being a trial attorney in the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland, to tax law courses he taught as a member of the University of Maryland faculty.
“He had a sense of justice about it,” Dennis O’Brien said of his father’s work for the IRS. “He didn’t like the fact that people cheated. But I think later on in life, he avoided telling people that’s what he did because they would be mad at him. But when he was doing it, he was definitely proud of being an IRS agent.”
Before his career as a runner, Mr. O’Brien was involved in fast-pitch softball, playing and managing for more than 20 years. It was during that time that he met Frank Thomas, who said Mr. O’Brien attended informal reunions for Southern High School graduates at area bars and was mistaken for a priest when he wore a black shirt, black coat and gold cross.
“He waited in line to refill our pitchers, and the bartender hollered out, ‘Father, you don’t have to stay back there. Come on up here and bring your pitchers up here, and we’ll fill them up,’” Mr. Thomas said. “And he told the people in front of him, ‘Let the father get up there.’ He would do that all the time whenever he would wear that outfit.”
Mr. Thomas said Mr. O’Brien’s popularity was widespread.
“They would have the big Polish festival over at Patterson Park every year, and he started getting me to go to them,” he said. “My God, you couldn’t walk 10 or 15 yards without someone knowing Obie, yelling out, ‘Obie!’ He was known all over. I don’t care where we went. Everybody knew him.”
A funeral for Mr. O’Brien is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Casimir Church in Canton.
In addition to his son, Mr. O’Brien is survived by another son, Kevin O’Brien of Fallston, a daughter, Joyce Pyzik of Edgewood, sister Anne Jane O’Brien of Timonium, and five grandchildren.