In The Limelight
Mike & Patty O'Brien
Interviews by Teresa Nguyen
We’ve been blessed so richly. Janesville is really such a great and welcoming community and it’s a natural response to want to reciprocate when we’ve been given so much.
~ Mike O'Brien
Mike and Patty O'Brien - Photo by Lifetouch
Founder/Consultant - O’Brien Betterment, LLC
Former Vice President/General Manager Bliss Communications Radio Division
Radio Advertising Bureau: Sales Advisory Committee
Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Board of Directors, past
United Way Blackhawk Region Board of Directors, past
United Way Blackhawk Region Volunteer of the Year 2018
Marriage Preparation & Enrichment facilitator with wife Patty
Former St. John Vianney Cross Country Co-Coach with wife Patty
Forward Janesville/Chamber of Commerce Goodwill Ambassador of the Year: 1993
Forward Janesville Downtown Planning Council, past
RAB Fun Run Winner for 10 years
Boston Marathon finisher 1989 & 1996
Founder of O’Brien Computer Consulting
Former Elementary Physical Education Teacher in Fond du Lac
Former Math and Religion Educator
Former Teacher at St. Patrick’s and St. John Vianney in Janesville
Former Coach - high school Girls Gymnastics and grade school-middle school Cross Country.
Former Coach Fond du Lac Goodrich Girls Gymnastics - team competed at State for the first time in the school history
Marriage Preparation & Enrichment facilitator with husband Mike
Former St. John Vianney Cross Country Co-Coach with husband Mike
Boston Marathon finisher 1996
1st Place Finisher of two local charity runs
Patty: I was born in Grand Forks North Dakota, then we moved to Fargo. After that, we moved to Minnetonka, Minnesota where I attended junior high and I attended High School in Lester Prairie. We moved around a lot.
There were seven children and I’m second oldest. It was like I was the first child. My older brother was a bit of a rebel and I was “Perfect Patty” - not a compliment by my siblings. So, I was kind of in charge most of the time. My mom worked outside the home, which was very unusual for women back then.
Mike: I’m from Fond du Lac and grew up there. I was in the same city throughout almost my entire childhood and was baptized and married in the same church, St. Patrick’s in Fond du Lac. It was a pretty stable place to be. I attended a Catholic grade school and Catholic high school.
I was the fifth of eight children, kind of blended in with the crowd. There were two girls, four boys, then two girls, all born in ten and a half years! I thought my name was “Hey, you” until I was about five.
Patty: My mom was a physical education teacher and a coach. It was a very small school, there were just 24 kids in my graduating class. There were 500 students k-12. I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities: GAA (Girls Athletic Association), cheerleader, band, jazz band, newspaper and basically every sport. My mom said, “I’m the coach, you need to be there.”
Mike seated front left
Mike: In high school, I was involved in cross country, track and other extracurricular activities. I was senior class vice-president, which made me kind of a perennial class reunion organizer.
Patty second from right
Post High School Education
Patty: My mom told me I was going to be a physical ed teacher and said I should go to Mankato State. So, that’s what I did. I was a college gymnast, a too tall gymnast, and competed for three years. I then coached high school gymnastics for my fourth year of college.
My first year out of college I did not get a job, but worked as a substitute teacher. I landed a job in Fond du Lac the following year, teaching elementary Physical Education, Special Education Swimming and coaching gymnastics. Fond du Lac is where I met Mike.
My mom had earned her master’s degree and started teaching at UW-Center Fond du Lac.
Mike: My first year of college, I attended UW-FdL, where Patty’s mom, “Ma Kelly” was the Athletic Director. Everyone called her “Ma.” So, I met Patty’s mom before I met Patty!
I used to hit tennis balls against the wall while Ma Kelly was teaching a huddle of students at the other end of the gym. Sometimes I’d miss my ball and it would roll into the middle of her class. She’d holler at me, “O’Brien, you have to leave!”
I’d say, “Don’t worry, Ma, I won’t miss another one!”
Sure enough, I’d miss another one and she’d say, “You’re outta’ here!”
It was about a year later that I met Patty. But I already had a good relationship with her mom.
Meeting Each Other
Mike: I had just finished my sophomore year of college at UW-Oshkosh when we met each other. We set a tennis date within a few minutes of meeting. That was the interesting event.
We had decided to meet at McDermott Tennis Courts the following day at 3 o’clock. I was on my bike, but took a different route than normal, because I realized I didn’t have new tennis balls.
On my way, I stopped at the sporting goods store to pick up some tennis balls. When I got back on a different route to go to the courts, I ran into Patty! So, I rode alongside her and said, “Well, we’ll ride to the courts together.”
We got to the main intersection and I turned to the right and Patty turned to the left and we crashed into each other in the middle of the street! We looked at each other and at the same time said, “Ah, McDermott is that way” both pointing in opposite directions!
I said, “Um, Patty, I grew up in Fond du Lac and McDermott courts are that way. I think you’re thinking of Taylor Park, where there are also courts.”
She was on her way to the wrong tennis courts and we would not have met! We later realized, had I not taken that different route, I wouldn’t have run into her. And if we’d ended up at the wrong courts, we would have both felt stood up! I think that was God’s coincidence.
Patty: I had only been in Fond du Lac a year. I had a car, so could have easily taken the car, but chose to ride my bike that day.
I had played tennis with other guys who thought they could play and were not very skilled. I would go easy to not hurt their ego. Mike was the first guy I played who challenged me, a really good tennis player! He beat me the whole time. I was fine with that. I appreciated his competitive spirit.
We’ve played sports our entire marriage, we’ve done marathons and do a lot of bike riding now.
Mike: We recently started playing Pickleball, which is kind of like tennis for older people.
Marriage and Family
Patty: My dad died when I was in high school, but my mom was really happy about our marriage and his parents were glad that he was marrying an Irish Catholic girl!
Mike: At our wedding, we had signs that said, ‘Irish Wedding’ and overplayed the green colors. The groomsmen looked a little bit like MacNamara’s Band!
That was the thing back then, though, in 1978. I was still a college student, so we didn’t make it overly formal.
Patty: We were married at St. Patrick’s Church. Our reception was in the Grand Ballroom at the Retlaw Hotel, a historic old hotel. Guests were served a buffet of sandwiches and potato salad. We were on a budget. It was a blast. We invited a lot of our college friends to the dance and had a live band.
Mike: The priest who witnessed our wedding was Patty’s uncle, Fr. Timothy Kelly, who went on to become an Abbot at St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota.
Patty: We have three sons ages 41, 37 and 34 now. Two live in Chicago, one in Milwaukee. Sean is married to Jessica with two sons who are 10 and 12. Sean is a criminal defense attorney in Chicago. He’s a great man, and, has a compassionate heart for his people. He is very good at what he does. His wife is vice-president of a bank. They’ve been married for 14 years now. It was life changing to finally have a daughter-in-law! She’s awesome. Tim is a graphic designer for Wilson Sporting Goods in Chicago, working from his new home in Milwaukee. Aaron, our youngest, is married to Cameron. He’s a consultant for start-up and expanding corporations. Cameron is a partner is a recruiting firm based in San Francisco.
We love to see our family, but it hasn’t been easy during the pandemic.
Coming to Janesville
Mike: I had worked for radio stations in Fond du Lac, then Kenosha and Wausau before coming to Janesville. I got into management in Wausau. I had been really working a lot of hours. We were excited about a brand-new station we had signed-on in Wausau.
At the time, though, I felt that my life wheel was out of balance. I had a note on my dresser in Wausau that said, “Run a marathon.” It was a goal that I knew I didn’t have time to fulfill. I was working too much.
Patty and Mike on their wedding day
One day, in February of 1988, I said to Patty, “I’m gonna’ run that marathon, I’m going to spend more time with our family, more time on my faith and physical fitness. I’m going to change my life balance and I’m going to tell my boss about it on Monday.”
I told my boss and he encouraged me to do the right thing. It opened me up to new possibilities. We were involved in our local church, but I felt we needed to go to another level, like marriage enrichment programs.
In August, of ’88, I ran the marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon.
Meanwhile, Bob Dailey, then General Manager of WCLO and WJVL, was talking to me about possibly replacing a 43-year veteran in his sales department to be the Sales Manager. In October I came to Janesville in the new position.
I met up with some great guys at the YMCA and started a pattern of running as a lifestyle. The cool part is Patty and I also started running together.
Patty: We went to the principal at St. John Vianney and said we wanted to start a cross country team, because St. Paul’s Lutheran had a cross country team and had a big invitational meet each year. We asked them if we could come to their meet and they said yes.
So, we were given the green light at our school and started with 5th - 8th graders. Sean was in 5th grade then. The next year we added 4th graders. Then St. Mary’s joined with a team, and year after year more schools joined in. Finally, we hosted a St. John Vianney invitational and eventually all the other schools did, too.
It was fun. It was great to have a team where everyone started, with as many participants as you wanted. It was hard to see kids who wanted to be good, but who struggled. In cross country, they were all starters. Everyone could play. It was a great sport!
Mike: It turned into a team of over 50 children! We’d remind them, “You’re all starters in cross country!” We respected all of them, no matter their skills, and they developed better self-esteem, got into good exercise and had a lot of fun. Patty came up with creative ideas like Popsicle Days and water balloon fights.
Patty: I’d run with some of the fourth-grade girls and they’d say, “Mrs. O’Brien, could you hold my hand?” It was so sweet. I didn’t have any daughters, so how could I resist? And sometimes they’d get tired and just wanted to walk for a while.
Marriage Preparation and Retreats
Patty: We started volunteering in the Marriage Preparation for engaged couples when we lived in Wausau. Aaron was born there, so we were already married with three children. After a while, we saw some couples we knew, who were divorcing. It kind of broke our hearts and we thought, “Maybe we could help already married couples, too.”
Mike: In Wausau, we were part of an ad hoc group of other younger couples and families and we’d meet in each other’s homes. We would talk about our faith and our families and share experiences. Some of those people were good examples.
We hadn’t taken the Pre-Marriage Inventory ourselves. They didn’t have that in ’78, but we decided to take it seven years into our marriage. No one answers those questions entirely right. But we got to the statement, “My future spouse has certain traits that annoy me.” Of course, Patty, being so kind, wrote “Disagree”. But I filled mine in, “Absolutely. Yes.”
Patty wanted to know, “What is it I do that annoys you?” She kept insisting I tell her! So, I told her, “Well, in the mornings at breakfast, you kind of slurp your cereal.” Patty switched to waffles after that (they both laugh). It was a trivial thing, but an example of how you can learn more about each other even after several years of marriage.
We administered the pre-marriage inventory to young couples. We wouldn’t tell them what to do, but would point out areas that needed further communication.
Patty: We are still doing this, but it’s more challenging with the pandemic, since we have to meet with couples. We’re still doing pre-marriage programs for the diocese, though it is changing. Father Paul has asked us to coordinate the new program for the parish called, “Witness to Love”.
Mike: We did a Valentine’s talk in February of 2020. There was a little bit of news about this potential virus, but we weren’t aware enough at that time.
We had a nice gathering at St. John Vianney. It included dinner and a talk, a meal with a message. This year we facilitated a marriage enrichment series via Zoom.
Patty: When we do those talks, Mike is the writer and is entertaining in his writing. It’s not just a dry, “You need to do this” kind of thing. I do the technical work, multimedia presentations, video clips and such to go with it. We try to make it entertaining and fun, but also enriching. We’d like to do more of that throughout the diocese. We did talks in the western part of Madison a few years ago. We enjoy it a lot.
Mike: We’re not counselors, but we’re storytellers. We tell stories regarding our own marriage, and sometimes others’ and we bring in biblical passages for them to think about.
A favorite passage is from Ephesians 5:33:
“In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband.”
Those two things connect to the strongest needs within a man and a woman. Saint Paul got to that point over 2000 years ago, the psychology of how people think. If a man feels disrespected by his wife, he often acts in an unloving way and is mean-spirited. The wife might, in turn, respond with disrespect, creating a cycle, unless one of them breaks it. If the man responds with kindness and loving tenderness and says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way,” and she responds with respect, then they can move toward a more loving and close relationship.
Patty: It’s good advice for all couples, new couples or even long-term marriages.
Mike: If you think about it, we tend to give what we want most. A man tends to give out more respect and a woman naturally gives more love and their inner drives are a little different. They’re longing for different things. It’s like that with us, Patty is more nurturing than I am and more tenderhearted. I need to understand that more and speak to her in a way that touches her heart.
Motivation to Give Back
Mike: We’ve been blessed so richly. Janesville is really such a great and welcoming community and it’s a natural response to want to reciprocate when we’ve been given so much. We have a saying we use with our kids, “To one who is gifted, much is expected.” We just naturally want to share. And it’s energizing.
Take Cross Country, for example. Meeting with all those kids was the highlight of our day, having fun running, being outdoors, inspiring them and seeing what they could accomplish in the long term.
Doing these things together as a couple has been special. Many couples do a lot of things, but have different interests. We’ve found mutual interest in helping engaged or married couples or coaching together, even with the United Way. Anything I would do; Patty was right there helping. At the radio station, she would show up and help with media promotions.
Patty: The radio station employees were like a family. I loved being a part of it! I also filled in for maternity leaves for the salespeople.
Mike: Patty worked part time at all the radio stations.
Patty: But, once I started my own business, I couldn’t do both. I’d show up at the radio station in a suit, then go to work on someone’s computer in their home, crawling on the floor under a desk, ruining my suit.
Starting Their Own Businesses
Patty: I love helping people, I’ve always been kind of a nurturer. With my business, I’ve enjoyed that a lot. There are little old ladies, bright, intelligent people out there, but who don’t understand computer technology. I’ve helped them with their computers and it’s great to be able to provide them a service, to really help them so they don’t have to struggle with technology. I love it! I also love working with younger, more tech-savvy young customers. It’s great to be challenged.
Mike: I retired when I did so that we could go out west to a better climate part of the year. That was in July of 2019. The next two months we traveled to Colorado where the climate was optimum and we biked a lot. That was prior to the Pine Gulch Fire in 2020, which forced us to evacuate and return home early this past year.
I was able to develop a website. Patty and our son, Tim, helped with that and with a logo. Tim also created business cards. Then we drove down to a Broadcast Conference in Dallas that year, when I was a member of the Radio Advertising Bureau Sales Advisory Committee. It was a good network.
I was able to get things started, do some training for radio stations and salespeople to help build their revenue. This past winter I did that for some stations in Pennsylvania. After the pandemic hit, I transitioned to working with stations via Zoom.
Patty: I’ve been doing computer consulting since 1998. When our oldest son graduated from high school, I started taking a class at Blackhawk Tech, while helping some customers. The kids in my class were the same age as Sean, so I tried not to listen to the things they were saying about what they “did last night”!
Mike: We took a couple of courses together. One on how to buy a computer and then Introduction to Computers. Patty became a teacher’s pet immediately and understood the concepts so quickly that she started helping everyone!
Patty: At the time, I was an algebra teacher at St. John Vianney. I’ve always had a “math brain”.
Favorite Role in Life
Patty: Being a mother has been my most fulfilling role in life. My mom motivated me. She was a phy ed teacher and I loved sports.
I did enjoy teaching elementary physical education and special education swimming, as well. My mom had worked full-time, but took time for us kids, too. But after we married and had children, I wanted to be home with them, which wasn’t financially easy at the time, but it was worth it.
When our youngest was in school, I decided on another career.
Patty: Mike inspires me. He’s always loved me for who I am and has been so supportive in whatever I’ve wanted to do in life. He is my best friend. I didn’t have any friends after we moved to Kenosha and to Wausau. It was just Mike and me and our new babies.
Mike: Patty and my mom, the women in my life, have been my biggest inspirations.
In my younger years, my mom was inspiring to me. She was quite the philosopher and could sit with you and almost read your mind. My mom was a college graduate from UW Madison and then began teaching at Edgewood College.
Once she had children, she never took another full-time job again. She was a volunteer teacher at the Catholic grade school, but was a full-time educator at heart in her own home.
My dad was inspiring, too. He was a very driven guy and also graduated from UW-Madison. Earlier in his career, he worked in furniture store management. Later he transitioned into the safety products industry as a hard-working manufacturers rep.
Whenever I would get a new position in another city, Patty always said, “Mike, I’ll go with you anywhere.” I would say, “Well, that’s kind of important, honey, because we’re married.” But she wasn’t just going along with it, I knew she was a part of the momentum going forward.
Peg & John O'Brien on their 50th Anniversary
Janesville really became home the past 32 years. This is such a wonderful community that we didn’t want to go anywhere else. Fortunately, Bliss Communications helped me to move up in the company and when I worked long hours, Patty was very supportive. Anything that I’ve done, we’ve done.
Patty: I trusted his judgement. The only thing I asked of him was to not seek public office or go into politics!
Mike and Patty with their grandsons
Patty: We were going to have a St. Patrick’s Day party on Friday, March 13th, 2020. We had all the ingredients for vegetable dishes, quiche and stuff. Our kids started texting and sending links. They were saying, “Don’t gather. Mom, you have to take this virus seriously. Get food and water for a month.” My goodness, they were insistent and all over it!
So, we canceled the party the Wednesday before.
Mike: It’s a serious time, like no other. There were so many people who were doing things in the community, but at great risk. People were helping at ECHO and at the homeless shelter with the public. We decided that, with Patty’s pulmonary condition, it wouldn’t be prudent to go out.
It was suggested to me that I get a Zoom account. I developed a webinar for the industry and did that for free for any radio stations that wanted some training.
The Wisconsin Broadcasters Association sent it out as a link. It was designed to help people to get through the challenges in the midst of this difficult time, including the recession.
A lot of people liked the webinar and later I was able to get paid for more training sessions with radio stations.
Patty: My son looked at me and said, “Mom, what are you going to do when you get it?”
I said, “I’m not going to get it!”
Then he said, “No, Mom, what is your plan, what are you going to do? Where are you going to go to get tested? You need to figure all that out now.”
Mike: They are very protective of Mom.
Patty: When we left here to go out west, there wasn’t a mandatory mask law and were just doing grocery pick-ups. In Colorado, there was a mask law, so we were going into the stores.
Patty: We have N95 masks. It protects not only you from me, but me from you. I talked to my doctor near the start of this pandemic, when my brother got the masks for me. He’s a partner with a guy from China, who had access to good masks. I said, “I’ve heard I’m not supposed to be wearing them. What do you think?”
She said, “You need to wear it.”
So, no guilt, we’re both wearing them. I feel safe. I’m back to working again, going to certain homes and, when I leave, I wash my hands.
Mike: For now, we’re only attending Mass via livestream. It’s hard. But we’ve been able to participate in Mass at other parishes along with our own via the livestreams, like ‘attending Mass’ with a former St. John Vianney priests, Father Randy and Father Donn, now serving in the Madison area. So, that’s been a silver lining.
We’ll get through this difficult time together.
Visit Mike’s business, O’Brien Betterment, LLC: