Beloved teacher had passion for life

by Robb Fulcher
Published January 15, 2009

Longtime Hermosa schoolteacher Kim O’Brien, memorialized last week by hundreds of flower-carrying admirers on the city pier, was eulogized days later as a loving, popular and accomplished educator who made and kept friends on every path she walked.
Mrs. O’Brien, who taught third and fourth grades at Hermosa Valley School for 28 years, possessed a zest for living that spilled over into skiing, horseback riding, hot air ballooning, parasailing and skydiving.
She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2006 and died Dec. 30, at age 56.
“Mrs. O’Brien was a teacher who loved her profession and worked hard at being the best every day of her life,” her husband John, also an educator, told the many hundreds of people who overflowed St. James Catholic Church in Redondo Beach on Saturday.
“She cherished all of her students — adored the young ladies who always did their best and had a very soft spot for the boys, especially her ‘bad boys,’” said John, the principal at Torrance High School.
He described his late wife as an organized and efficient teacher “who stressed academics and good manners, and enjoyed the rigor and diligence of teaching third and fourth grade.”
And, he said, she made the whole thing fun.
“At Back to School Night the parents had to learn to square dance. She herded the covered wagons over the greenbelt trail to Valley Park for pioneer day. She loved dressing up for and hosting the Fiesta Celebration. She created the annual Calvin and Hobbes Day with stuffed tigers and Calvin Ball being featured, and later on the Harry Potter Day complete with a Quidditch match,” John said.
“One of Mrs. O’Brien’s traditions was reciting The Night Before Christmas with her students and herself in pajamas as they strolled throughout Hermosa before the holidays. Her teaching always balanced academics and fun.
“Once you ventured inside the walls of her classroom you might be in a jungle or a mining camp complete with river and sluice, or some other decoration highlighting the theme of the year. There was even a cave to hide out and read stories in.”
John recalled trans-classroom adventures such as the trips to a Capistrano mission, the zoo, the SEA Lab and a strawberry farm.
“There were 7 a.m. student award breakfasts at IHOP and Good Stuff, classroom Pen Pals in Torrance, the Bronx, New York and Iraq, and the spring break trips to Sacramento where the students and parents got to sleep out in the 28-degree weather to imitate the life of the 49ers,” he said. “Talk about a learning experience.”
Every summer Mrs. O’Brien held a 22nd Street Beach Reunion as a way for her students to “stay in touch, build relationships, close out one year and move on to the next.”
He recalled his wife’s “lifelong relationships” with students and their parents.
“Mrs. O’Brien attended bar and bat mitzvahs, first communions, soccer and Little League games, recitals and her favorite, the Blue/Gold dinners. What could be more fun than 100 hyperactive 8-year-old boys at dinner? Later she was invited to and attended high school and college graduations as well as many weddings,” he said.
John spoke of the friends she made and kept from childhood through her career, even in Iraq, where her U.S. Air Force staff sergeant son and his buddies shaved their heads in her honor.
John called his wife his “fantasy come true” and described how “incredibly lucky” he was to marry her.
“We met at a Toga Party and then I tried to fix Kim up with one of my friends, but my brother steered me in the right direction, saying this girl is the one for you,” John recalled.
“Kim was a mom who gave birth to and raised three wonderful children — Steven, 27, an Air Force staff sergeant stationed in Louisiana, Erin, 25, a grad student working on her teaching credential and Kara 20, a third-year student at SFSU,” he said.
“Kim has a wonderful daughter-in-law, Megan who cared for her in the last few days and was also at her side when she passed. Grammy has three lovely grandchildren — Isaiah, Aidan and Scarlett. The last time she really got to visit and play with them was in a weeklong trip to Japan made possible by the generosity of our neighbors in Torrance.”
Mrs. O’Brien also is survived by father Jim White and mother Barbara White, brothers Jay (Jennifer) and Jeff (Andrea), and sisters Cathy and Laurel (Bill) Atwood.
John said his wife “claimed she was shy but could play, flirt, joke and laugh with the best of them.”
He spoke of a “runaway cab ride,” a wild “Vegas family junket,” TGIF parties, his wife’s participation one year in the annual San Pedro Polar Bear Swim, and “the infamous bachelorette party that ended at Chad’s Biker Bar in Big Bear,” a tale “that will live on and grow in legend.”
In an interview Jay Keller, a sixth-grade teacher at Valley and 25-year colleague of Mrs. O’Brien, said she “worked with every kid. She never gave up on any kid. She would find their strengths and helped them understand they were successes because of that, and then carry that over into academics.”
“She was amazing,” Keller said.
He said his colleague displayed boundless enthusiasm and would drag him off to open houses at Torrance schools to see what a standout teacher was doing there.
Mayor J.R. Reviczky took a moment during Tuesdays’ City Council meeting to honor Mrs. O’Brien, saying his two sons studied under her and “loved her dearly.”
Her husband ended his eulogy at St. James by asking, on behalf of his beloved, that everyone “keep passion in your work, keep friends in touch, keep family in your heart, keep love in your life, and keep having adventures and fun. If there is a message we can take from Kim today, let it be her mantra, ‘Life should never be boring.’”
Visitation was held at the Rice Mortuary Chapel in Torrance and a funeral service was at St. James Catholic Church in Redondo. In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations in Kim O’Brien’s name to: Embrace Support Group, c/o Little Company of Mary Foundation, 4101 Torrance Blvd., Torrance, CA 90503. ER