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Manes: Former Crown Point educator talks history, life

A scene from along Ed O'Brien's bike ride.  |  Supplied phoby Ed O'Brien

A scene from along Ed O'Brien's bike ride. | Supplied photo by Ed O'Brien

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Updated: August 24, 2014 6:09AM



“My greatest aim has been to advance the art of photography and make it what I think I have, a great and truthful medium of history.”

— Mathew Brady

Ed O’Brien taught math at Crown Point High School for 38 years. His wife, Bonnie, is a retired elementary school teacher. They have raised two adult daughters.

O’Brien, 73, was known as “the voice of the Bulldogs” because he was announcer of athletic events ad infinitum at the high school. He is an elder at the First Presbyterian Church in Crown Point and has served as financial secretary there since the ’70s.

In “retirement” he is student teacher supervisor at Indiana University Northwest and volunteers at St. Anthony Hospital for the past three years.

O’Brien also is an avid bicyclist, photographer and charter member of the Wabash & Erie Canal Association.

He has been a die-hard Chicago White Sox fan since 1951. Coincidentally, we both nearly froze to death on Minnie Minoso statue night at U.S. Cellular Field in April.

***

“We lived in Hobart until I was 11, then my parents moved to Gary,” O’Brien began. “I graduated from Emerson High School. Both Hobart and Gary were fascinating places to grow up in. When I lived in Hobart it was still a small town atmosphere. Gary was a vibrant place, the mills were going strong. Gary was the commercial center of Lake County. I lived there until ’63 and then moved out here.”

College?

“Purdue University, West Lafayette with a degree in math education. I was hired at Crown Point High School in 1963. I earned my master’s degree at Indiana State University.

“Yeah, I worked at Crown Point for 38 years and they tore the high school down. Then, I worked part-time at Barnes & Noble for 10 years and the store went out of business. Now, I’m volunteering at the hospital and they’re worried.”

The Wabash & Erie Canal Association?

“Well, I was always interested in history. When I was going to school in Terre Haute I stumbled across a reference about the old Wabash & Erie Canal. I got very interested in it because it was a canal that went from Toledo, Ohio, to Evansville. At 468 miles, it was actually the longest canal ever built in North America. This was in the days of slides and slide lectures. So, I developed a slide program showing both the existing remains of the canal and old photographs. Very similar to what you guys did with the Grand Kankakee Marsh in your documentary. Not at that level, but the same premise.

“I started showing my program to schools and civic groups all over the state of Indiana. I honestly feel that I served as an indirect inspiration. The Indiana Canal Society was created soon after some interested folks attended one of my presentations. There also is a theme park now near Delphi in Carroll County. Those people didn’t realize what a treasure they had until they took in one of my presentations.”

Continue with the history, please.

“The idea for the Erie-Wabash Canal was to turn the traffic from heading south to heading north. In the early days, all of our traffic went down the river system to the Ohio River and then on to New Orleans. Technically, our economy was tied in with the South. But by building this canal, it connected to Toledo, which connected via Lake Erie to the Erie Canal.”

Fascinating.

“Like a lot of things in Indiana, it was built at the end of the great canal era. In the 1830s. It’s heyday was in the 1850s. It was gone by the Civil War.”

Community theater?

“I was involved with the Playmakers Community Theatre for about 10 years. Their big production every year was a Broadway musical. All Broadway musicals have a part for a middle-aged comedian who does not sing or dance. That was my speciality.”

You do kinda look and talk like Jack Lemmon.

“I provided some humor while the real talent could catch their breath.”

When you ride your bicycle, you always have a camera with you.

“Because I like history so much, I take a lot of photographs of old barns and trains as I ride.

“My wife is a lifesaver. I’m not built like most bicycle riders. I’m like one of those bears in the Russian circuses that ride bikes. I’m built like that. Going into the wind is a lot of work for me. I tend to check the weather and ride with the wind behind me. I always make sure Bonnie is available to pick me up.”

What’s the farthest you’ve biked?

“About 107 miles last summer at age 72.”

That’s great.

“Jeff, I once sent Carrol Vertrees an email complimenting him on a column of his. In his column, he mentioned his love of wild flowers, so I included a few photos of wild flowers I’d taken on a bike ride. He responded, thanking me for the ‘bouquet.’ That began a wonderful friendship which evolved as he took the time to find me at Barnes & Noble just to see what I looked like.

Carrol and I exchanged emails several times. He sent me the initial email saying ‘I like your style, kid.’ I mentioned it to my former copy editor Pat Maman. Pat told me: ‘Take that as the ultimate compliment. Carrol Vertrees is one of the most respected journalists around.’

“Carrol was simply a beautiful person.

I’m surprised you taught math and not history.

“I minored in history, but there are much less math teachers than history teachers. You had a job automatically teaching math. Quite honestly, it doesn’t bother me because I enjoyed math, but I loved history.

“If you’re teaching history to a bunch of high school kids who don’t want to be there, well, that can kind of get to your heart after awhile. If you’re teaching math and they don’t want to be there, who cares? For one reason or another, kids came out of my math classes enjoying it. Something worked.”

Maybe I should have had you for a teacher. I hate math.

“I created a class called technical geometry. It was intended for kids who were not planning to go to college. When it was developed, the mills were still very healthy. There were a lot of apprenticeships available.

“The class was geared toward guys who weren’t book oriented, but they had very good brains. They needed additional math skills to become electricians or whatever. There were an awful lot of kids who didn’t have a great track record in math classes, but somehow, I was able to reach those kids.”

***

Today, the chairman of the math department at Crown Point High School is one of his former students.

Ed O’Brien, the history buff who bikes across the state shooting slices of Americana along the way... .

Simply a beautiful person.



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