Tom O’Brien steps down from The Charlotte News Board after 10 years
By Geeda Searfoorce | The Charlotte News
Business leader, community organizer and owner of The Wallet Pen, Tom O’Brien is stepping down from The Charlotte News’ Board of Directors after a decade of service. O’Brien, who, in 2006, joined the stalwart community members responsible for informing and connecting the community via the nearly 60-year-old nonprofit newspaper, is ready to pass the baton to the next generation of service-oriented Vermonters.
During a recent conversation, O’Brien deployed his inimitable humility and humor to assess his time with The News. “Oh, I didn’t do anything!” he said. “Really, I just happened to be there.” Evidence to the contrary. Colleagues and fellow board members wax lyrical about Tom’s contributions, which have impacted Vermont, Charlotte and The News immeasurably.
O’Brien is eager to turn attention to others, however. “I am eternally grateful for the indefatigable Nancy Wood, a real mentor to me in many ways, and Linda Williamson, and so many others from behind the scenes who have put in thousands of hours of work for this community newspaper.” Wood, the founder and longtime editor of The News, and Williamson, a dynamo who wore many hats—from production manager to ad sales representative—are invariably hailed as being integral to ensuring the ongoing health of the paper.
O’Brien has spent over 30 years “making good” in Charlotte. “My dad was a retailer,” O’Brien said. “We moved around a lot and I went to a lot of different schools.” But eventually Vermont captured his heart. “I went to UVM and never left.” O’Brien moved to Charlotte’s “Gold Coast” in 1983, after living in Lincoln and practicing commercial woodworking and carpentry through his first business, Lincoln Works, for a number of years. He and his wife, Bethany Myrick—the two met when they were students at UVM—just celebrated their 33rd wedding anniversary. They have two sons, ages 26 and 29, both of whom live and work in the area.
O’Brien’s first foray into community service was born out of necessity. He and other craftspeople, artists and business owners working on the Pine Street corridor in Burlington had trouble finding quality, affordable childcare. Eventually they coalesced to form the Pine Street Arts and Business Association, the precursor to today’s South End Arts and Business Association or SEABA. O’Brien became the organization’s president.
Working with Bruce Seifer, who is now with the Community Economic and Development Organization, CEDO, and Bill Mares, writer and, at the time, state representative for Burlington, the group went to the Chamber of Commerce for help. Finding none, they planned, garnered support and developed funding for a childcare center, which flourished for years in the south end near the southern connector. The Howard Center now occupies the location, but O’Brien and his cohorts learned firsthand how to work together to change their community for the better. O’Brien eventually served on the governor’s childcare council because he felt so strongly about the issue’s importance as pivotal to quality of life in Vermont.
Eventually, O’Brien sold Lincoln Works and purchased, with a business partner, the A& W in Middlebury, which he helped run for 10 years. “We worked 25 weeks in the spring, summer and fall,” O’Brien says. That left his winters free for volunteering at CCS, spending time with his family and skiing. “Skiing is church for me,” he says. In 2004 he bought The Wallet Pen and several properties in Middlebury, where he and Myrick eventually plan to retire.
By serving on the board of The News, O’Brien was doing what came naturally to him—giving back to Charlotte. “The paper, back then, was an outgrowth of the school,” he said. “After our kids went through, we wanted to pitch in and work on something to build our community.” But times have changed. “We used to have eight to 10 people get together every editorial meeting, people from the community who could help out with The News,” he remembers. “But things are different now,” citing economic factors that have put changing demands on families and societal structures that don’t allow for civic volunteerism to be people’s top priority. “I want to see more folks engaged in making this place in which we live really special.”
Tom will forever shine the light on someone else, a testament to his belief in the merits of collaborative engagement. “I think my real contribution, in most situations, is my willingness. I don’t have many special talents but I can talk to anybody. I’ll call ‘em up,” he says. “You’ve got to ask for what you want and build the community you want to live in. And sometimes the most important part of that is bringing people together.”
Vince Crockenberg, who served with Tom as co-president of the board for the past two years, agrees. “Tom was in many ways the heart and soul of the board during the 10 years he served on it, including several years as co-president. He was always the first person I called when I needed help thinking through an issue that we had to deal with on the board. I knew I would always come away from conversations with him reassured that the enterprise we were engaged in was a worthy one and that, together with the staff, other board members and all the volunteers who contribute their time and energy to the paper, we would continue to make The Charlotte News work well for everyone in town.” Tom may be retired from the board, Vince said, “but I know where he lives and I have all his phone numbers.”
As he moves on from The News board, it’s evident that O’Brien will never abandon his deep appreciation for all the tremendous potential for Charlotte’s future as the community in which everyone pitches in and celebrates the life we are lucky to have here. “Living in the country, looking at the stars at night, spending time with our families—we all have these important things in common. We’re all so grateful to be here, to have this time on earth. We can choose to use our time to make what we want. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I believe in our ability to do it.”