Person of the Week
Bill O’Brien: Everybody Knows His Name
When Bill O’Brien isn’t busy giving back to Branford and beyond, he cherishes the time he can spend following (and photographing) the sports play progress of local teams including those of his three grandchildren (left to right) Mikella, Jamison, and Ethan O’Brien. (Photo courtesy of Bill O’Brien )
Among his many contributions, for 34 years, Bill O'Brien has been an active leader of the local chapter (and, since 2012, a national board member) of the National Football Foundation (NFF) and College Hall of Fame. Shown here, he's wearing the emblem of the local chapter, for which he has served as president since 1992 and which was renamed the Casey-O’Brien chapter in his honor in 2012. Pam Johnson/The Sound | Buy This Photo)
Bill O'Brien is also known for his photography including documenting community events -- this is one of his shots from the 2019 Branford Holiday Parade, where he captured his good friends (and iconic local animal charity supporters ) Sue Barnes and Eunice Lasala dressed up to help support the cats of Branford Compassion Club. Bill O'Brien Photo )
There’s a certain song about a place “where everybody knows your name.” If your name is Bill O’Brien, that place is Branford. And most of North Branford, New Haven, and Madison, among others.
The New Haven native and retired bank executive, who will blow out 80 candles on his next birthday cake, has spent decades involved as a key contributor to his community and others. Bill and his wife, Maureen, moved to Branford in 1969.
The busy Branford resident of 50 years remains so intrinsically tied to so many aspects of the Branford, shoreline and Greater New Haven community that it’s nearly impossible to name them all. In addition, Bill’s also a noted photographer—both as a hobbyist and sports shooter—with coverage stretching from covering Yale sports in the late 1970s to his own grandkids’ current work on the fields of North Branford and Madison.
Back in the day, Bill played football for Notre Dame High School (Class of 1958). His two sons played for Branford.
“I started taking high school football game pictures when my two sons Mike and Greg played in the late ‘80s and mid-’90s,” says Bill. “The school I’ve taken the most game pictures of over the years is definitely Branford... Most were for the Gridiron Club, the old Branford Review, Shoreline Times, and most recently the former Branford Eagle,” he says. “Must be at least a hundred games over the years, many using film cameras—remember those?”
Bill reported and photographed for The Eagle, an online Branford news site, for several years before it closed in 2018. He still contributes many community-based photos and stories to The Sound.
Many of Bill’s personal sports photography efforts now follow the teamwork of kids who play with his three grandchildren, including Mikella (who just completed her 8th-grade field hockey season) and high schoolers Jamison and Ethan.
“They’re such an important part of my life, especially now,” says Bill, who tries to attend every game played by every grandchild.
Mikella and Jamison O’Brien play sports as North Branford students while Ethan O’Brien, son of Bill’s late son Michael, plays for Daniel Hand High School (DHHS) in Madison. Of course, both of the boys play football for their high school teams—and quite well, Bill adds, very humbly.
As previously reported, on Nov. 8, Bill was taking photos at a DHHS football game when he went through quite a health scare that quickly led to receiving a pacemaker. Within days of his brief hospital stay, however, Bill got right back into the game.
While his presence was missed at the Nov. 10 Branford Veterans’ Day Parade (organized by Bill, who is the chair of the Branford Veterans Parade Committee and a past grand marshal of Branford’s Memorial Day Parade), he received a hero’s welcome when he brought out his camera and took to Main Street to document the Branford Holiday Parade and Tree Lighting on Nov. 30. As always, Bill captured dozens of great photos that night to share with friends and fans.
After graduating from Quinnipiac College in 1962, Bill served in the U.S. Army reserves for six years, receiving an honorable discharge as a staff sergeant. In his professional life, he enjoyed a 42-year career in commercial banking. Before his retirement in 2005, Bill served as a senior vice president at Lafayette American Bank, followed by his work with New Alliance Bank. He credits his banking career with helping to touch off decades of community service, including his involvement leading some very iconic New Haven programs.
He served as a chair of United Way of Greater New Haven and as president of the New Haven Road Race, for which he’s been a board member since 1981. With his knack for fundraising and development, Bill has been a huge supporter of the Greater New Haven St. Patrick’s Day Parade and was named its grand marshal in 1994.
Of course, in the lead-up to donning that shiny top hat and grand marshal’s banner at the head of the state’s largest spectator event, “you have to pay your dues!” Bill says. “Before I was grand marshal, I spent six or seven years doing what I do best, raising money.”
Bill’s also helped to successfully raise funds for many other programs, mostly by either chairing or co-chairing them. They range from chairing Notre Dame High School’s successful $2 million capital campaign to co-chairing the fundraising for New Haven’s Hannah’s Dream Playground built in 2000.
But perhaps what Bill’s best known for in many circles is his work as a huge supporter of the game of football. To that end, he’s served with the Walter Camp Football Foundation for more than 40 years (including as president from 1979-’81). One of Bill’s contributions was an idea that pumped up the star power and became a big draw for annual Camp dinners: establishing the Silver Anniversary Award. In many cases, it brings back players who earned their Camp honors before they were stars of the NFL. Tony Dorsett, Dan Marino, and Doug Flutie are just some who have arrived back in New Haven for the honor.
“It’s great to see how Walter Camp’s evolved,” says Bill.
Bill was also one the very first leaders of this area’s high school Southern Connecticut Conference (SCC). He served as the first SCC commissioner (1994-2005) and now serves as commissioner emeritus.
But if you ask Bill, perhaps his crowning accomplishment comes by way of his 34 years of service, to date, with the National Football Foundation (NFF) and College Hall of Fame. He’s served as the local chapter’s president since 1992. In 2012, when Bill was tapped to join the national NFF board of directors, he was also honored with the renaming of the local chapter to recognize his contributions through the years.
“There’s 120 chapters in the country, and I am president of what’s now known as the Casey-O’Brien chapter” of the NFF, Bill says. “What I’m proud of is we’ve honored 1,200 kids over the years [who] play football, excel in the classroom, and do good things in the community.”
Nationally, NFF gives out more than $300,000 in annual scholarship to top students who play football, he notes. Last year, more than $14,000 was given away to kids honored by the Casey-O’Brien chapter.
“It’s probably one of the most time-consuming [projects] I’m involved in now,” says Bill, who also brings in different speakers to monthly dinner meetings for local football leaders.
In November, he brought former NFL (and Southern Connecticut State University) coach Kevin Gilbride, who will be coach and general manager of the New York Guardians in the newly formed XFL league.
Giving Back to Branford
Among many of his contributions to Branford, Bill co-founded the Branford Sports Hall of Fame. He recalls how that got started: with a bike ride alongside Parks & Recreation Director Alex Palluzzi, Jr.
“About 30 years ago, we were pumping along on our bikes through Pine Orchard, and one thing led to another,” says Bill. “I said to Alex, ‘How come Branford doesn’t have a sports hall of fame?’ Right after that ride was over, we stopped at Bernie Page’s sporting store and asked him if he thought it was a good idea, and he thought it was a great idea.”
Bill helped organize a meeting of past players of renown and local sports leaders to develop the notion. The hall was officially established in 1988 and Bill had the honor of giving the induction speeches for the first inductees.
“That first year, I was shocked in my own right with the number of people who came out. We’ve continued to have about 300 people come out, every year,” says Bill, who was inducted as part of the hall’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2012.
Another Branford milestone Bill’s credited with establishing was the successful re-launch of the Branford Festival more than 30 years ago. At that point, the festival was a very different animal—primarily a huge concert drawing crowds from all over to hear name-recognition bands play on the Town Green—and it was failing financially. That’s when former first selectman Judy Gott asked Bill to step in.
He set up and led its corporate board (on which he now serves emeritus) and came up with several iconic ideas that stand to this day—ranging from corporate sponsorships and the many sponsor banners prominently displayed each year to setting up an iconic Town Hall stage featuring the fest’s main acts.
Bill’s also served the town as a member of the Branford Parks & Recreation Commission for 28 years, and as a member of the Branford Economic Development Commission for even longer than that.
Additionally, he chaired the community campaign to support construction of the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter.
“The goal was $100,000 for us,” says Bill, adding that much of the credit for the shelter’s establishment goes to his good friend, Eunice Lasala, a founding community leader of the effort.
“Eunice was the driving force behind everything,” says Bill, who recalls meeting with her and past First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos to discuss what needed to be done to help.
Bill was asked to raise $100,000 (the remaining cost of the project was set to be funded by a $200,000 state grant and $50,000 from the Town of Branford).
“I thought, ‘People like dogs and cats, so let me see what we can get done,’” says Bill.
He built excitement and interest among residents and their kids—and even donned a dog costume to fundraise outside of local businesses. He also took the campaign to local newspapers, which published photos as it progressed.
“I tried to put the attention on the kids. I had a dog house [barometer] built, and every time we reached a $10,000 milestone, I would get a bunch of kids peeling off the label. So people were identifying with the kids and the shelter that was needed, and it all came together. The money kept pouring in,” says Bill.
The campaign raised more than $148,000 for the shelter, which opened in 2003.
Like so many other causes and efforts he’s supported, Bill says he’s just happy to help.
“If I can help out, I will try my best. I enjoy it,” says Bill.