Obituary: Daniel J. O'Brien, 1933-2020 | Obituaries | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Obituary: Daniel J. O'Brien, 1933-2020

A 2018 Vermont Citizen of the Year worked tireless on behalf of his community and state

Published May 22, 2020 at 6:00 a.m.
Updated May 22, 2020 at 12:07 p.m.


With great sadness, we announce the passing of our father, Daniel John O’Brien, 86, affectionately known by his family as “Big D.” He passed away peacefully from natural causes in the early morning hours of May 19 after fighting a prolonged and courageous battle with Parkinson’s disease at his home in Grand Isle. By his side, as always, was his loving wife of 53 years, Sandra (Corey) O’Brien, and their five children. He was the best father, a devoted husband and loving grandfather. A third-generation Vermonter, Dan spoke more with his actions and deeds than with his words. In his understated way, he left a significant impact on South Burlington, Chittenden County and his beloved state of Vermont that will serve as his legacy for years to come. Big D’s strong work ethic, love for his family and God, commitment to community, and compassion for those in need always guided him.

Daniel J. O’Brien was the second son born to Leo O’Brien Sr. and Mabel Hayes O’Brien, following his older brother, best friend, lifelong neighbor and business partner Leo O’Brien Jr. and his sister Rita O’Brien. Born in South Burlington to a farming and cattle-dealing family, he grew up on the family farm on Patchen Road, in what is now known as Jaycee Park. Dan became a successful businessman, leader, political strategist, volunteer, and the title that meant the most to him and to us: beloved family man.

Following in his father’s footsteps, first in agriculture and then in politics, Dan became well known and respected for both his business intellect and political instincts. He was a lifelong Democrat who simultaneously believed in government’s ability to improve the lives of our citizens while also fiercely believing in the entrepreneurialism, resourcefulness and the work ethic of Vermonters. He volunteered for many years as the chair of the South Burlington and Vermont State Democratic Committees, as well as the Democratic National Committee. He was a highly effective leader; during his tenure as chair, Vermont voted for a Democratic presidential ticket for the first time in history. In addition to his political volunteerism, Dan served for nearly three decades as chair of the Vermont Department of Liquor Control and served the state on the National Alcohol Beverage Control Board, where he and Sandra made many friends, as well as on a number of nonprofit boards and committees.

In 1958, Dan and his brother Leo Jr. formed O’Brien Brothers. Initially the business focused exclusively on farming and livestock, but they soon expanded to help their fellow farmers not only buy and sell cattle but also, when the occasion dictated, their farms and land. They did so always with the mindset of treating their customers, who oftentimes were their friends and neighbors, with respect, dignity and fairness. Dan was a shrewd negotiator, but his word was as ironclad as any contract. This new line of business created a natural transition from agriculture to a different type of land use and stewardship: real estate development and management.

Over the years, Dan received many awards and accolades for his tireless work on behalf of his community and state and for his many business accomplishments. Most recently, in 2018, Dan and his brother Leo were honored as Vermont Citizens of the Year by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce. In a letter supporting their nomination, Sen. Patrick Leahy said that Dan and Leo had spent their careers identifying needs “of the business or housing market and have developed projects that both meet these needs and improve our state.” Dan was highly accomplished and an innovator in real estate and business, but he went about it in a quiet, humble and stoic manner — the same way he lived his life.

Big D’s greatest source of inspiration and pride was his family. He married the love of his life, Sandra, in 1967, the same year a Rutland Herald article named him the Vermont Democrats’ Most Eligible Bachelor. Together they raised five children at their happy beehive of a home on Old Farm Road in South Burlington. Their active family life involved date nights with his stylish and beautiful Lebanese wife; an open-door policy for kids and their friends and neighbors, and a well-stocked refrigerator to support them all; family theme songs (“Celebration” by Kool & the Gang); and regular Saturday night meals at the Rusty Scuffer on Church Street. Sunday was strictly “family day” that included church and a huge Sunday dinner. The meal was lovingly prepared by Sandra, who would graciously cook for dozens of people who weren’t always strictly family but were treated as such. The Sunday dinners continued through Dan’s entire life. Dad had seemingly endless patience, as demonstrated by his time at camp, driving the boat while his children and all of their friends and neighbors learned how to waterski, despite the fact that he never learned how to swim.

Mom and Dad made up a pastime called “bumming around,” which consisted of driving around in his 1941 Packard, looking at property, and imagining a retreat for family and friends to gather and enjoy simple pleasures. This dream became a reality nestled on the shores of Lake Champlain in Grand Isle. It is a place of deep family connection and a favorite gathering spot for every grandchild, and it lived up to Dan and Sandra’s long-ago vision.

Dan fully recognized and was appreciative of his blessings. He often said he could never ask for more in a lifetime. The life he curated and the loving memories created will live on forever.

Daniel is survived by his loving wife, Sandra; his beloved brother Leo Jr. (spouse Bonnie O’Brien); his daughters Stephanie (spouse Roger Paradis), Molly (spouse Stephen Gregory), Kerry (spouse Edward Biggins) and Katie (spouse Chris Terrien III); his son Daniel II (spouse Kathleen Roy O’Brien); his eight grandchildren: Grace Kennaugh, Adele and Isabel Gregory, Jack, Mary and Sarah Biggins, and William and Eleanor Terrien; and many nieces and nephews on the O’Brien, Savage, Casey and Corey families. He is predeceased by his parents, Leo O’Brien Sr. and Mabel O’Brien, and by his sister Rita O’Brien.

We watched in admiration and awe as our mother Sandra turned into Dad’s primary caregiver. She did this with grace and grit and determination. Dad remained in her capable and loving care until the end. Sandra and the entire family would like to send a special thank you to the team of people that helped her care for Big D in the late stages of Parkinson’s disease: Dr. Chris Hebert, Dr. James Boyd, Dr. Chris Terrien, Jr, Patty Defino, Griswold Home Care, and Stephen C. Gregory & Son Cremation Service.

In lieu of flowers donations may be made to any of the following: St. Anne’s Shrine, P.O. Box 280, Isle La Motte VT 05463; Grand Isle Rescue, 3 Faywood Rd., Grand Isle, VT 05458; or South Burlington Fire and Rescue, 575 Dorset St., South Burlington VT 05403.

Dad was a man of few words. If one of his kids went on for too long, he would sometimes say, “I will give you a nickel if you stop talking!” So, we will save more Big D stories, memories and accolades for when we can celebrate his life well lived, together in true Irish fashion, after COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted. Dad, thank you for showing us how to live your values and life to the fullest! Rest in peace.

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