By Clark DeLeon
September 27, 1983
Thinking about the news coverage that followed on Sunday night and yesterday morning, I wondered how a visitor to Philadelhia would have reacted to the front-page, top-of-the-newscast prominence his death received. "This guy was a TV weatherman, not a head of state," someone might have said. "What did he really matter?"
We know better. He mattered a lot to us in ways we will come to know by their absence in our lives. I am speaking here about Jim O'Brien the public persona, the reassuring presence on television, the hard-working professional who obviously cared so deeply about his work and, above all, the man whose ad-lib wit approached diamond-brilliance. God, he could make me laugh. It was his talent, his gift.
I never knew Jim personally as well as I would have liked. We always enjoyed seeing each other, and at the end of most conversations he'd say "When are we going to get a beer?" I always thought there'd be plenty of time for that. We never did get that beer.
To give you an idea of how powerful his personality was and how much people cared, whenever I would talk to someone about local television personalities, he or she would invariably ask, "What's Jim O'Brien like in person?" I'll bet everyone even vaguely connected with Philadelphia television has been asked that question.
I suppose it was his skill as a communicator, but more importantly his humanness, which allowed him to be real in front of a camera. As I sat in stunned silence outside the Vet, my 11-year-old son said, "I just saw him on Friday. He told me to have a good weekend." That's how personal his television presence was. You felt he was talking to you. And he was.
Sincerity, if that's the right word, was the key. He could be sincerely funny and sincerely serious in the bat of an eye. That's how he could get away with his outrageous non-sequiturs and still maintain his credibility.
There was something else about Jim O'Brien that won over Philadelphia. You knew he wasn't just passing through. Unlike other television personalities who view Philadelphia as a fourth-market rung on the ladder to the networks, Jim made it clear that this city and Channel 6 were where he wanted most to be. For him, Philadelphia was a worthy vessel for his boundless ambition, talent and energy. "They'll have to drag me out of here." he once told an audience. And he was not limiting himself. He simply seemed to have found the place where he could find professional happiness.
Personal happiness was another matter. Like many driven men. he brought the same high career standards to his private life. There were two divorces and the subsequent fear of new relationships. He told friends he knew it was his own problem, the impossible standards he set for women, and it made him intensely unhappy. There were times with his closest friends when he would let it out, be moved to tears, to reveal, as he would say, "the cracks in the porcelain."
Of course, this only made him more human. And more remarkable.
I think now of Philadelphia television without Jim O'Brien, and I still can't conceive of it. I know I'm not the only one who would be in the middle of watching the news on Channels 3 or 10, and then flip over to Channel 6 in time to catch the weather. It was more like Jim O'Brien's monologue, and when you'd tune in only to find someone else doing the weather, it was like discovering that John Davidson was guest hosting for Johnny Carson.
In 10 years on local television, Jim O'Brien redefined the word "personality." He was without a doubt the most-liked man in Philadelphia. There's no one even in the running. He took the intimate medium of television and made it even more intimate, while remaining a professional the entire time.
Someone said to me yesterday, "Could you imagine Jim O'Brien as an old man?" And I said no, I can't imagine someone with that drive and energy being old anymore than I can imagine hearing a man on the radio saying that Jim O'Brien is dead. His life was like the beginning to the song 'Fame'. "I wanna live forever, I wanna learn to fly,"
And while we flew with you, Jimbo, it was wonderful.