Red O’Brien (bottom left) knew, like the ironworkers of the day, that the job required hard work, and the fun would happen when the clock said so. Also in the picture are Alan Paul (top left), Harold Horn (middle top), Tommy Rice (bottom centre), and Efren Muldinado. (Courtesy Mike O’Brien)
When asked what legacy Edward “Red” O’Brien will leave behind, his son Mike O’Brien was quick to answer.
“I think one of the biggest things, and you hear it from most people you talk to is: you work,” said Mike. “He partied hard in the evening, but you work. You show up to the job on time, you do your work, you work hard, and you always look for how to do it best, quickly and efficiently, but best.”
Louis Stacey worked for Red in the 80s after ending his military career.
“He didn’t fool around,” said Stacey. “Work is work.”
Red was a union man. He worked out of Local 361 in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island, and was pure old guard, hard-working, iron-slinging blue collar.
He died Sunday night, February 19, and was 80 years old.
Red O’Brien was born in New York in September of 1936, grew up in Kahnawake on the Monick Farm (where the Texas area of the community now is), before moving back to Brooklyn with his adopted father, ironworker Mike Marquis and his wife Josie Ross.
Red’s mother Daisy Ross died when he was three, and he never knew his father, though he kept the O’Brien name.
Red came to the ironwork game young, following in the footsteps of his father Mike.
“He actually joined the union when he was 16,” said his son Mike. “I think he was in the first apprentice class ever at 361.”
Joining the union in 1952 meant being a part of the city’s building boom in the postwar years. He rubbed elbows with many of the legendary Kahnawake ironworkers of the era.
“He was a connector and then he worked for my uncle Maynard Paul,” said Mike.
“He worked for Tommy Deer, my mother’s uncle and then his father Mike Marquis. Then he became a pusher (foreman) and hired a lot of guys: John Dee (Delormier), Marvin Delormier, Freddy Kirby, Arty Rice, Arty Cross, all those guys worked for him. Pete Lafleur, Tommy Sky, Alan Paul; they were all in his gangs.”
Alan Paul got hired by Red in the late 60s at the legendary Spar Bar, an establishment well known by ironworkers of the era.
“He said, ‘you guys want to go to work?’” said Paul, who was part of a “cracker jack” raising gang (pictured above working on a guy derrick in the early 70s.)
“We worked hard, drank hard and fought hard,” said Paul. “The next day, it was back to work.”
Paul beamed talking about his former pusher Red, who was respected by all who worked for him.
Red married Olivia Paul in 1957, and soon had Mike and then Malcolm. The couple would have celebrated their 60th anniversary this year.
As for encouraging his children to follow in his footsteps, Red had a very clear opinion.
“My father had a famous quote that you can’t use in the paper,” said Mike. “He said, ‘you’re going to school, and I’m going to make sure you’re going to school because you ain’t growing up to be a dumb f$%^ing ironworker like me.’”
Mike listened to his father and went to college, though he grew up respecting his blue-collar work ethic and dedication to hard work like many men who applied the trade in New York.
Stacey was one of many who worked for him.
“He was a good guy to work for,” said Stacey. “Business was business, and when it was work, you did your work, but he wasn’t too aggressive. Firm, and let’s get the job done, but then he did joke around. It was fun to go to work.”
Red finally retired with a pension 18 years ago at the age of 62 after working 46 years in the industry.
“At that point he had 46 years, and I said, that’s enough daddy,” said Mike. “I said, ‘you’re going to work three years for nothing, retire.”
Outside of work, Red O’Brien, like his son and many of his fellow steel slingers in Brooklyn, was a diehard sports guy.
“Giants fan, Rangers fan, Yankees fan,” said Mike.
“He was part of the brigade with my uncle Patty Ross, who used to go to the Giants games when my uncle Patty Ross was in a wheelchair. We used to stand on the sidelines back in the 60s, and watch the Giants. We pushed the guys in the wheelchairs in,” said Mike, although some of them weren’t actually in need of the chair.
One particular game inspired a particularly legendary story.
“Ronnie Leborgne tells the story that he was pushing my father in and the Giants scored and he jumped up and Ronnie said, ‘what the hell are you doing?’ and he said, ‘they scored! It’s a miracle!” said Mike.
The crew of Kahnawake ironworkers also sat directly behind the net at Madison Square Garden.
“I was upstairs on the balcony looking down at the drunks,” said Mike, “In the old days when they threw fedoras on the ice. There were about five of them from Kahnawake that had season tickets for the Rangers.”
In his last years, Red battled dementia and cancer for years, and finally succumbed to the disease last month.
“He actually outlived the prediction by about three years in terms of the lung cancer,” said Mike. “Which is too bad in a way. It was good for a while, but I wish that would have taken him before the dementia hit. It’s hard to watch someone lose their mind.”
Red was part of a generation full of stories and experience that will leave a void for all future generations. Stacey considers himself lucky that he did not miss the chance to be a part of it.
“Looking back, I was at that perfect age where I got into the business with these old timers still in the field and I got to experience the transition from old school ironwork to new school ironwork,” said Stacey, who stopped applying the trade 10 years ago.
“Guys like Red O’Brien, John Dee Delormier, Frankie Curotte… these guys, the stories that they could sit down and tell you were unbelievable.”