Saturday, June 17, 2006

A Father’s Day Treat: A Brilliant Chicago Daily News Columnist, the Legendary Howard Vincent O’Brien, Writes About His Son

From October 17, 1932 until July 22, 1947 the columns of Howard Vincent O’Brien ran as a daily feature, “All Things Considered,” appearing in the right-hand column of the venerable newspaper. Only during brief interludes when he was on shipboard, vacationing or ill, was the right-hand column missing. When it was missing for more than two days, the switchboard of the old Daily News was clogged with calls from people worrying that he was ill or dead. I include a column now because there are people who believe that Mike Royko was this city’s greatest columnist. Not so—although Mike was the legendary hard-drinking, hard-playing newspaperman who never went to college and wrote with the cadence of the blue-collars almost every day.

But Howard Vincent O’Brien was different—and, in my view, much better. He wrote against great odds. Failing eyesight forced him to get rid of his great hobby, photography. Later it meant he had to write longhand with a heavy black pencil, only a few words to a page because the writing had to be big enough for him to see. Afflicted with cancer, he wrote almost to the very day of his death. Here is a column written on January 8, 1942 the day his son left for the army:


There was no band, no flags, no ceremonial. It wasn’t even dramatic. A car honked outside and he said, “Well, I guess that’s for me.” He picked up his little bag and his mother said, “You haven’t forgotten your gloves?”

He kissed his mother and held out his hand to me. “Well, so long,” he said. I took his hand but all I could say was “Good luck!”

The door slammed and that was that—another boy gone to war.

I had advised waiting for the draft—waiting at least until he was required to register. I had pointed out that he was not yet of age. He had smiled at that and assured me that his mind was made up. He wanted peace, he said. Without peace, what good was living?

There was finality in the way he said this—a finality atr once grim and gentle. I said no more about waiting.

After the door closed behind him, I went upstairs. I went to what had been his room. It was in worse chaos than usual. His bureau was littered—an incredible collection of things, letters, keys, invitations to parties he would never attend.

Clothing was scattered about—dancing pumps, a tennis racquet his collection of phonograph records, his trumpet gleaming in its case.

I went then to my room. On the wall was a picture of a little boy, his toothless grin framed in tawny curls—the same boy who had just taken my hand and said, “Well, so long.”

Not much time, I thought, between the making of that picture and the slamming of the front door. Not much more than a decade. Suddenly, a queer thing happened. Objects came alive, whispered to me. The house was full of soft voices. They led me up to the attic—to a box of toy soldiers, a broken music rack, a football helmet, a homemade guitar, schoolbooks, class pictures, a stamp album, a penny bank with the lid pried off…ancient history, long hidden under dust.

The voices led me to a filing case and a folder stuffed with papers—report cards, letters, among them the wail of an exasperated teacher: “Though he looks like an angel…” Telegrams, passports, a baptismal certificate, a ribbon won in a track meet, faded photographs (one taken on the memorable first day of long pants), a bit of golden hair.

I sat down and thought how time had flown. Why, it was only yesterday when I had held him in my arms! That, somehow, made me remember all the scoldings I had given him, the preachments, the exhortation of virtue and wisdom I did not myself possess…

I thought, too, of that last inarticulate “good luck,” that last perfunctory handclasp and I wished I had somehow been able to tell him how much I really loved him. Had he perhaps penetrated my brusque reserve? Had he perhaps guessed what was in my heart?

And then I thought, What fools we are with our children—always plotting what we shall make of them, always planning for a future that never comes, always intent on what they may be, never accepting what they are!

Well, curly-head, you’re a man now, bearing your bright new shield and spear. I hated to see you go out of my house and close the door behind you, but I think I would not have halted you if I could. I salute you sir. I cannot pretend that I am not sad but I am proud, too. So long.


That column was reprinted nation-wide. See how simple it is, how spare the prose? There are more columns from Howard Vincent O’Brien about curly-head and I’ll be bringing them to you on occasion. For you and yours, happy Father’s Day.


  1. Tom-
    The image you selected to accompany the magnificent O'Brien article is a famous photo of a German soldier. Note helmet design, etc. It is one of my favorite WWII photos. FYI

  2. Thanks, Tom, for sharing such a touching column.

  3. What happened to his son in WW2?

  4. I was born after Mr O'Brien died, but there was a book on the bookshelf when I was a kid which was called "All Things Considered, which turned out to be a collection of Mr O'Brien's columns. I found this odd, as we were a Tribune family -- the apostasy of my parents reading a Daily News columnist! Nonetheless, I read the book several times, and I remember most of his work as being just as well-crafted as the piece you reprinted.

    It has been thirty-plus years since I last read it, so I cannot remember exactly, but I am pretty sure his son did not return from the war. Maybe that will be the third O'Brien column you reprint.

    I have always wondered if NPR ever acknowledged that they stole his column name for their program.