By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer
On Saturday, June 28, the Central New York running family lost a member. On his daily run, Bill O'Brian collapsed and died. He was 65 years old. This morning, we celebrate his life and his running, and lay his body to rest in the City of Oswego.
Bill's contributions to local running spanned six decades. He was an outstanding runner, a thought-provoking writer, and a careful organizer. The area's successes in hosting and participating in national competition are due in large part to Bill's attention to detail and his insistence on compliance with requirements.
Bill was born and grew up in Oswego. In childhood, he outran his playmates in games that little boys played. In high school, he developed his running talent into an excellent miler. In 1949, he won the Section 3 championship in the mile.
Following high school, Bill enrolled at Cornell University, and ran on the Big Red track meet. In his senior year, he ran on Cornell's 2-mile relay team in a dual meet with Yale. Bill's relay team secured the meet victory for Cornell, and in the process set a school record that stood for many years.
Like many college athletes, Bill stopped running after graduation. He served in the Air Force during the Korean War. The death of his father in 1968 from lung cancer motivated Bill to quit smoking and resume running.
Bill excelled as a masters ultra-marathon runner. He set several national age group records, including 50 miles in 6 hours 20 minutes 15 seconds, 100 kilometers in 9:40:35, and 114.32 miles in 24 hours at age 50. He also ran on the Syracuse Chargers 50-59 cross country team that won all three National Championships at 5K, 10K and 15K in the Fall of 1986. Bill is also the only runner to finish a marathon inside Manley Field House, running 211 laps to score in the Noontime Running League.
While many runners remember Bill O'Brian's running achievements, many more knew Bill through his critical reporting on running. Bill started writing for the Syracuse Chargers Newsletter in the early seventies. His monthly column on race results, later named O'Brian's Oddments, began in 1978. From July 1978 to July 1997, Bill wrote a monthly digest of local race results. He only missed one month, March 1992, when he underwent open heart surgery.
Ed Stabler competed often with Bill O'Brian. Similar in size and speed, they often raced and finished together. Ed considers Bill's attention to detail and insistence on compliance as his most significant contributions to the running community. For three decades, Bill carefully followed the fortunes of local runners, young and old alike. He dutifully scanned the results of regional and national races in search of familiar names. Whenever he saw an outstanding performance, he made sure that it was properly reported. Through Bill's efforts, many local runners like Ed Stabler, received national recognition.
Lennie Tucker remembers Bill O'Brian with two words: "course certification." Bill insisted that all road races be run on certified courses to ensure that outstanding performances receive their due credit. This insistence on course certification, and his uncharitable criticism of non-certified courses, earned him the nickname "pre-eminent provocateur." Bill's impact on course certification manifested itself in 1988, when a 7-year-old girl participating in a road race asked: "Is this course certified?"
In 1992, Bill underwent open heart surgery to replace the aortic valve. He wrote: "Although I have the cardio-vascular system of a man half my age, it has a defective valve in the middle of it. The aortic valve stenosis most probably started many years ago as a result of undiagnosed rheumatic fever as a child. When I described some of my recent workouts to the examining physicians, they were surprised that I had survived." It is true that Bill died while running. However, it was running that gave Bill a longer and richer life than his heart would have permitted.
Before his surgery, Bill O'Brian received the Syracuse Chargers Track Club Overall Outstanding Volunteer Service Award. Nate White introduced Bill as "faithful, steadfast, entertaining, thought-provoking, imaginative, accurate, humorous, dead serious, discerning, unselfish and courageous." Nate's concluding remarks are a fitting farewell:
"We salute you Bill. We wish you God speed, and from here on in may the wind always be at your back."
Kamal Jabbour remembers Bill O'Brian's cautious return to running after surgery. Bill insisted on running every step and every heart beat that was granted him. His prayer was answered. His soul and body parted as he worshipped the Creator through running.