If he were alive today, Fr. James J. O’Brien, SJ, would have been 92. He was born in New York on September 8, 1927 and coincidentally had the same birthdate as the Blessed Virgin Mary. He died at a relatively young age of 66 on May 26, 1994, around four months short of turning 67 – the average age (more or less) of many of his students at the Ateneo de Naga in the 60s who are still alive today. To many of his students, he was simply known as O’B.
Much has been written about O’B’s love for Bicol, but not about his persona.
As a way of remembering O’B on his birthday this week, I would like to share excerpts from his biography that I wrote which was published in Bansay Bikolnon Biography Series by the Ateneo de Naga University Press. As Isabel Allende once wrote, “People die only when we forget them.”
He loved basketball
“O’B loved to play basketball. He loved to talk about the New York Knicks, his favorite NBA basketball team. Every afternoon he would play basketball at the Ateneo gym. Students would watch him play in awe, as he galloped back and forth the court in his six feet and four inches frame. He loved to shoot from the outside, but never from under the basket. My guess is he wanted to be fair and did not want to embarrass his shorter opponents.
“I had my first encounter with O’B in the basketball court when I was a first year high school student. One afternoon, I was watching him play basketball by himself and he invited me to join him shoot some baskets. Since then, I would always wait for him after class to play with him. He was so welcoming. He loved to play against the taller high school students. In turn, he would ask the smaller students like me to be on his team. He later asked me to join the Junior Varsity (Minims) when I was in third year high school and that was when I realized that he had never wanted to lose a game.
“O’B used basketball to befriend some poor boys from barangay Sta. Cruz who would come to Ateneo every afternoon to try their luck to play basketball. He would invite these boys to play in the gym to the chagrin of some Jesuits, faculty and other students. He would not only play with them, but he would also invite them to the Jesuit residence after every game for snacks. There was no doubt in my mind that this simple act of generosity was O’B’s way of showing his love for the poor.
“As a member of the Minims, I observed that O’B had never wanted us to play against mediocre teams where winning was a sure thing. Although he hated losing, he wanted us to always play against the best. This was evident in a postcard he sent me on June 3, 1963 when he visited Ateneo de San Pablo. In it he wrote: “I’ve been up here scouting for new opponents for the Minims, but they are all too easy and they wouldn’t give us a fight. Perhaps we could get a game with the Siruma Seals, or the Tinambac Tigers or the Bula Bums. Please contact them! Tell your barcada in Sipocot to stop throwing rocks at your old coach when he rides thru on the MRR. I got 5 lumps this trip.” If the Protestant-led Ventures for Victory basketball team used basketball to recruit new members, O’B used basketball to connect with ordinary town folks in Camarines Sur and understand their way of life. He enjoyed playing basketball against local teams.
“I once read a quote which says, “Friendship is not a big thing, it’s a million little things.” I am reminded of the kind of a friend O’B was whenever I read this quote. All the little things that he did, like inviting me to play basketball with him, asking me to join the Blue and Gold, dropping by our house in Bagumbayan whenever he took his nightly walk in the streets of Naga or even castigating me for not paying attention in class – all this made me realize how special I was as a person and it improved my self-confidence. In hindsight, these “little acts” of friendship were his ways of making me become a better person.
“When I turned 16 years old, O’B gave me a birthday card which I still keep. Like a true friend, he tried to motivate me by writing about my strengths in the card, rather than about my weaknesses. At the end of the card, he wrote, “I pray to our Dear Lord that we might always be good friends. How much that would mean to me – God bless and keep always such a fine young man and happiest of birthdays to you.”
“When I got married, I asked O’B and some other Jesuit friends who had influenced my life to officiate the marriage ceremony. O’B gladly accepted my invitation and there was no joy greater than being married by one of your friends.
“In December 1993, I received a Christmas card from O’B which he mailed to our Seattle address. It was addressed to my family. I immediately noticed that the handwriting was not his. It was (still) written in Bikol. He must have asked someone to write it for him, I said to myself. He talked about the Los Angeles Lakers (and not about the New York Knicks), his students and wished my family the best. It was signed, “Fr. O’B.”
“I never realized the extent of his worsening condition until it hit me that he could no longer write. Yet, there was no mention whatsoever of pain in the card, despite a previous heart problem and a recurring skin cancer. He just wanted to greet my family since it was Christmas.
“I wonder how many Christmas cards O’B sent that year. This was five months before his death. It tells me the kind of person he was.
“When he became our class moderator from 1964-1965, our relationship took a different turn. He was no longer just a basketball playmate and a friend, but a teacher. So I had to show him a little more reverence and respect, especially in the classroom, for fear of getting the padre’s ire.
“When O’B asked me to be the editor of the Blue and Gold, the high school paper, I was totally surprised because there were better writers than me. So I accepted the position with considerable apprehension. A teacher at heart, he must have seen something in me that he wanted to develop. Although I did not become a journalist, I’ve developed a love for writing that would not have been made possible without him.
“O’B taught with intensity and conviction. He made us memorize poems by American authors. He taught us how to write haikus. He was angry whenever his students would not maximize their potentials. He always wanted to draw out the best from his students.
“But he can also be witty. One day, my classmate Ernie Verdadero was caught by O’B writing a sonnet in the padre’s Economics class. Irritated, O’B told Verdadero, “You will never get rich.” “But, father, I thought you loved poetry,” Verdadero reasoned out. “I love poetry, but not during Economics,” said O’B.
“As a teacher, O’B wanted to instill in his students love for Bicol – its language, songs, riddles, history, places and people. He did this by practicing what he preached. He patiently learned the Bicol language. He sang Bicol songs. He solved Bicol riddles with ease. He studied the history of the Bicol Region on his own. He visited selected places with his students in tow and would, at the end, ask them to write about the places they visited. Many of these articles would later be included in the collection of readings that O’B compiled to teach Bicol History and Culture at the Ateneo de Naga.
“When I visited him at the Ateneo de Manila in the mid-‘70s, he told me that his students at the Ateneo de Naga were more insightful and creative than their Ateneo de Manila counterparts who were more vocal and expressive. That’s O’B. He was proud of the ability of the Bicolanos and would brag to the world about it.
“O’B was not the quiet priest who would hide his feelings when irritated or angry. If he were mad at his students, they would know it. Once his face turned red, better be careful. He could verbally tear you to pieces. But behind his bellicose temperament was his profound desire to discipline his students and teach them how to be responsible.
“His emphasis on discipline earned him the reputation of being a “terror.” His reputation as a disciplinarian was enough to make his students shiver. With his burly six feet and four inches frame and with a giant-like voice loud enough to scare young high school students, O’B was feared.
“Stories about O’B lifting students from the ground by their collars or verbally admonishing students, as his face turned red as if he was ready to devour them, are favorite topics during school reunions. He once poked me in the chest for coming in late during a Junior Varsity practice. I since then understood the importance of being on time – a lesson I learned the hard way. If O’B could not help you through prayers, he would do it his way. But in a strange twist of fate, the students he punished and disciplined – regardless of the method he used – were at the end thankful to him because he had made a difference in their young lives.
He loved the poor
“As many of his students would attest to, O’B was a consistent advocate for the poor. In his class, he would discuss with passion and fury the social teachings of the Catholic Church found in the encyclicals Mater et Magistra and Rerum Novarum. He was not scared to criticize the oppressive rich, some of whom he knew were Ateneo graduates.
“He was even critical of the institutional Church for not implementing its social teachings. But to the poor in Naga, he was their friend. Once, he had gotten the ire of the Ateneo’s facility man because he allowed a bunch of poor boys to play basketball in the gym. He even sneaked out some drinks and cookies from the Jesuit residence to give to the boys. He was a very generous person. When he was at the Ateneo de Manila, he would always offer beer to many of his former students from Naga who visited him. The joke was if you want to get drunk, visit O’B.
“During his years at the Ateneo de Manila, he established in 1975 the Tulong Dunong Schoarlship Program which supported poor but deserving public school students to study at the Ateneo de Manila. Two of its famous graduates include award-winning actress Angel Aquino and journalist Howie Severino. Tulong Dunong is now a foundation managed by its former scholars.”
If all this means anything, it means that O’B’s personality, plus his efforts, dedication and love for his students and the Bicol Region, blossomed into something much more than anybody could predict: O’B was indeed larger than life.
Maogmang Kumpleanyo, Fr. O’B…. Dios Mabalos.