“In retrospect, we were Renaissance women,” says Barbara O’Brien of the students at Marygrove in the early ’50s. “Our education had both breadth and depth, we could express ourselves well, and we could see the wide picture of the world and our part in it. Being at Marygrove at that time was outside the normal pattern for women, but it gave us a sense of confidence in our own abilities.”
O’Brien’s abilities were first put to the test when she was widowed in her mid-twenties with two daughters, ages 3 and 22 months, and an 11-day-old son. Two years later she became the guardian for her chronically ill mother after her father’s death.
When her son entered fifth grade, she went back to her teaching career in the Dearborn Public Schools, which had been put on hold while she started her family. She taught home economics from 1971 to 1975, acted as the consultant for vocational education for six months in 1976, and returned to teach home economics until 1979.
O’Brien then became assistant principal at Lowrey School. “When I first applied for the assistant’s position, there were no woman in building administration in Dearborn. In addition, no women had ever been in charge of discipline at the secondary level. It never occurred to me that it was inappropriate. I felt I could do it and do it well.”
She credits this confidence to her education at Marygrove College. “The greatest value of the education I received at Marygrove was the sense of confidence it gave me. The challenge of the curriculum and the strenuous schedule we were expected to follow gave us a sense of our own abilities,” said O’Brien. “Carrying 18 credit hours while student teaching and having to defend our senior seminar research papers in front of 30 or more people taught us to think on our feet.”
After Lowrey, O’Brien moved to an assistant principal’s position at Fordson High School for five years, spent one semester as principal of Bryant Middle School and then became principal of Fordson High School, where she remained until she retired in 1998.
Mary Ewasek, who nominated O’Brien, describes her as being very forward-thinking. “She never promotes herself or her skills, but her leadership and ability so impresses everyone she works with that she is sought out to organize projects within the school system and the Dearborn community,” she said.
According to Ewasek, Fordson’s Academy of Engineering and Technology is an example of the kind of forward thinking that O’Brien possesses. When the staff suggested the Academy as a way to bridge the gap between business and education and to better prepare students for a world of technology, she supported them. She encouraged local business people to act as mentors, helped raise money through grants and community appeals, coordinated with local engineering and manufacturing firms, encouraged U. S. First, a robotics competition, and articulated technical courses with Henry Ford Community College.
Another challenge that O’Brien faced head-on was the need to bring understanding and tolerance to the cultural differences in Dearborn’s diverse community. Though cultural differences were often in conflict with curriculum demands, O’Brien stood by the requirements of the school district and the state without alienating parents and students.
“I am definitely an optimist,” she said. “I think that more than a few colleagues would tell you that I was the Pollyanna of Fordson High School. However, I was a realistic and demanding Pollyanna.” Her high expectations and optimism have paid off. Under O’Brien’s leadership, Fordson High School earned national recognition by being named the best high school in Michigan by Redbook magazine in 1994.
In spite of a career in education that spans 43 years, dozens of awards, and lots of recognition, O’Brien is most proud of her children. “My children are my greatest gift. They are caring and capable people. Being totally responsible for rearing them was incredibly demanding; the very fact that they are such good people today makes me feel that I met my greatest challenge,” she said.