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John F.X. O’Brien, former state personnel secretary, dies

John F.X. O'Brien represented Northeast Baltimore in the House of Delegates.
John F.X. O'Brien represented Northeast Baltimore in the House of Delegates.

John F.X. O’Brien, who served in the Maryland General Assembly representing Northeast Baltimore and was later the state personnel secretary, died Dec. 21 of stroke complications at Brightview Senior Living in Rosedale. He was 84 and had lived near Loch Raven Reservoir.

“He loved working in state government and the possibilities it offered for a better Maryland community,” said Joseph M. Coale, former assistant to Gov. Harry R. Hughes.

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He also said: “John was trusted by political types because he stayed very much below the public radar and was competent with the nuts and bolts of public administration. As a talented consensus builder, John was flexible in seeking agreement but always held to the highest public service principles of honesty, fairness and integrity.”

Born in Baltimore and raised in Hamilton on Old Harford Road, he attended Mount Saint Joseph High School and was a graduate of Baltimore City College.

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“He was one of four children. He was always working even as a young boy to help his mother make ends meet,” said his daughter, Kelly Wassman. “He sold Christmas trees and delivered prescriptions on his bicycle.”

She also said, “My father was hardworking and kind and always available to lend an ear or offer advice, friendship or help in any way that he could. He taught me to look for the good in people and to always cheer on the underdog.”

Mr. O’Brien earned a degree at the Eastern College of Commerce and was a 1964 graduate of the University of Baltimore School of Law. He served in the Army in Germany from 1956 to 1958.

He entered politics as a journal clerk for the Baltimore City Council in 1963 and later worked for the State Roads Commission and the Maryland Department of General Services.

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While working at the roads commission, he met his future wife, Mary Ellen “Marlene” Foppiano.

A Democrat, he was elected to the House of Delegates in 1966 and represented Northeast Baltimore.

“I first met John in late 1978, and we’ve been friends and colleagues ever since. He had a lot of wisdom and great insights into state policy issues,” said John R. Griffin, former Maryland secretary of natural resources, who served in the Hughes and O’Malley administrations.

“John always acted in the best interest of the citizen he represented when he was in the Maryland General Assembly,” said Robert “Bob” Hergenroeder Jr., who also served in the General Assembly. “He was skilled in fiscal matters, wining many issues in favor of the consumer. John was a good friend and a mentor to me and many others. I will always remember his desire to get it right.”

While in Annapolis, he was a member of the Ways and Means Committee and was vice chair of the Committee on Appropriations. He was also a member of the Joint Budget and Audit Committee and a Maryland Task Force on Pensions.

Mr. O’Brien was a close a friend of Gov. Hughes and was his legislative liaison and chief legislative officer.

A former colleague in the Hughes administration, Constance “Connie” Beims, said, “John relished being on the governor’s staff when everything was possible and positive.”

Ms. Beims said Mr. O’Brien was influential in establishing the Maryland budget and was part of a team that developed and pushed for legal changes to save Chesapeake Bay from environmental harm.

Mr. O’Brien was Maryland’s secretary of personnel from 1984 to 1987.

Former state Sen. Julian L. Lapides said, “John was very bright and politically astute. He did an outstanding job as personnel secretary. He accomplished things by working quietly.”

He later served as executive director of the Maryland Classified Employees Association and was also human resources director and an attorney for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Family members said Mr. O’Brien was a devoted grandfather who listened to CNN and read a daily newspaper. He made weekly trips to the Woodlea Bakery on Belair Road and enjoyed rye bread or peach cake. He also was a regular at the Downtown Farmers Market.

He enjoyed playing “Clair de Lune” and Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp minor” on the piano.

In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 54 years, a medical assistant; a sister, Anne Muth of Mays Chapel; and three grandchildren.

Plans for services are pending because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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