Bill O’Brien is a hard guy to edit. He talks your ear off, and has so many fantastic stories to tell about his 86 years. It was a chore trimming his colorful life story down to 1,300 words. Kudos to Adam Klaawon over at Phoenix Magazine for getting it down to a choice 1,200 – still a generous amount of ink over the 1,000 that was originally assigned.
In any event, here’s the longer draft. We both wished there would have been room for the coda here, about the corned beef and cabbage. All those words, and Bill O’Brien’s just getting started.
Top O’ the Mountain
How do you get to the top of Camelback Mountain? For Bill O’Brien, it took ingenuity, hard work — and a bit of the luck of the Irish
By Jimmy Magahern
Not long ago, Bill O’Brien was asked to speak at his grandson’s wedding ceremony, a class affair held outside on a rolling hillside by a San Francisco country club. Fresh out of college and diving head first into marriage, young Steve O’Brien was looking to his worldly grandfather for, as Bill recalls, “advice that he could carry through life.”
O’Brien laughs, taking a sip from his third short Harp at the Dubliner, a traditional Irish pub in northeast Phoenix owned by one of his old friends. “Now, that’s a hell of a question!”
Nonplused, O’Brien took the mic, stood up in front of the sea of rented tuxedos, polished patent leather shoes and church-going Irish Catholics and delivered a bit of wisdom gleaned from his own college days, back when he was a member of the short-lived University of Arizona Polo Team.
“I said, ‘Keep your head down, your ass up, and charge!’”
You could spend a month of Sundays with Bill O’Brien and probably not get another motto out of him that better sums up the colorful life of the iconic Paradise Valley businessman. A book full of stories, sure. But not another life lesson quite as concise.
At a spry 86, O’Brien is not a big man — 5-foot-six, when not wearing his trusty cowboy hat. But he’s a giant in the Phoenix Irish community, as signaled in the affectionate shoulder slaps he gets from every grey-haired, red-nosed gent in tweed who passes through the Dubliner’s door. It was O’Brien’s influence with city leaders and businessmen that helped bring the community not only the Irish Cultural Center at Margaret T. Hance Park, but also the Rula Bula Irish Pub on Mill. “The Irish community here was in a lot of separate fractions,” says Patricia Prior, the center’s Ireland-born president. “You know how headstrong some of us can be! But Bill brought us all together.”
O’Brien’s even a hero with the Hispanic community, having founded a small society called the Los San Patricios de Arizona that celebrates, once a year, the little-known band of Irish immigrants who fought on the side of Mexico during the Mexican-American War. “We always liked those guys anyway,” says O’Brien, who learned to speak perfect Spanish. “The Irish and the Mexicans have always liked the same things: family, work, singing . . . drinking!”
He’s also a legend in Paradise Valley, where O’Brien is famous for having not only owned the most valuable piece of real estate in Arizona — 56 acres on Camelback Mountain, including its summit — but also for having done the right thing with it. In 1967, upon hearing that developers were planning to build a restaurant atop the Valley’s most renowned peaks — complete with a tram that would have picked up passengers near the front gate of O’Brien’s own 2.5 acre ranch at its base — O’Brien formed a partnership with his friend Russell Jackson and bought the land, giving the top 26 acres over to the city as a preserve, forever banning construction above the 1,800-foot level.
Ask him how he got to that summit, however, and you’ll get a series of wonderfully digressive stories that, together, extol the virtues of that same heads-down, hind-up determination he imparted to his grandson. The lesson becomes apparent, after another round or two: There is no easy lesson to be learned from one man’s riches; only the interlocking layers of experience formed by a life richly lived.
“My last semester in high school, I told my school pal, ‘I’m gonna leave, there’s nothing for me here,’” says O’Brien, by way of beginning to answer the question of how he got to the top of Camelback Mountain. “I practiced running alongside railroad cars. I was on the gym team, so I knew how to jump up, look to see if there were any hobos in the car, and catch the next one if there were.”
His epic life journey is as capricious as Forrest Gump’s, including the brushes with dignitaries (a lifelong cowboy wanna-be, he once rode horses with Ronald Reagan and mistook Henry Kissinger, enflight aboard the Concord, for an old rancher he’d known) and stint in the military (he served as a Navy captain during World War II after joining the ROTC to play polo in the U of A cavalry).
His first job out of college found him sweeping up wool at a Boston warehouse, but O’Brien, who’d made extra money through high school trapping coyotes around his west L.A. home and shipping their hides to Hudson’s Bay fur traders in Chicago, quickly moved up to wool grader. “I’d say, ‘That’s an Angus wool, West Highlands wool, carpet wool,’” O’Brien recalls. “They were impressed!” Before long, his Boston bosses were shipping O’Brien and his new bride, Sada, off to South Africa, where he became an international wool trader.
It was there, in Capetown, that O’Brien’s polo experience surprisingly came in handy. With the Boer Wars over, the British and Dutch continued to battle each other in friendly polo matches at South African barbeques (“boy, could they eat!”), and O’Brien soon found himself a substitute player for both teams. One day, a stout Brit alerted O’Brien to the news that the pound sterling had dropped to 23% on the dollar, and O’Brien — who’d majored in Agricultural Economics at U of A — instantly saw the opportunity.
“The next morning, I started going to auctions from Port Elizabeth to East London, buying wool like crazy,” he says. He spent close to a million dollars of his employer’s money in two days, without any orders — a stunt that drew stacks of furious telegrams from his boss — but his instincts were right. The company was in the black before the following Monday.
Upon returning to Arizona, O’Brien focused those keen instincts on buying and reselling land. “I could see how Arizona was growing,” he says. “So I started buying and selling land like it was wool.”
He financed the preserve atop Camelback Mountain by selling the 30 acres below it to John Gardiner, a Hollywood high roller he’d met through his sister, the 1930s film star Jane Bryan. “As I understand it,” recalls long-time friend Bob Glenn, “he went up to Carmel, California and talked to Gardiner, who had a successful tennis ranch up there.” So certain was O’Brien of Camelback Mountain’s ability to sell itself, he had walked into Gardiner’s office carrying two airline tickets to Phoenix. Somehow, he persuaded Gardiner to catch a plane that very day, and by the next morning, the John Gardiner Tennis Ranch (now Sanctuary on Camelback Mountain) was born. The 26-acre “hands-off” zone was part of the deal.
“He loves interacting with people, and he’s always got these great ideas,” says Glenn. “He gets these ideas of how to do things, and he’s not scared of doing ’em!”
Glenn and his wife Nancy have known Bill and Sada for 40 years now, and he affectionately calls O’Brien “the most energetic little Irishman I’ve ever seen. Even now, if someone asks him, ‘Do you wanna go on a wild boar hunt in Uruguay?’ He’s like, ‘What time are we leaving!’ He loves adventure.”
And gab — clearly a fundamental of Irish culture that O’Brien, blessed with friends too numerous to tally, still craves.
“It’s still early yet,” O’Brien says, taking a break about midway through his life story to crack open the Dubliner’s lunch menu. “How’s the corned beef and cabbage?”
— 30 —
No, celebrity deaths aren’t increasing, we’re just noticing them more – and rushing to be the first to tweet ’em. Twitter’s “Trending Topics” gives us all that creepy window on who everyone’s talking about. And being on top of this list is not always good.
“GangbangGirl” tweets “Hurry and comment on Karl Malden!” – presumably in a race to get her comment on the top trending thread of the day. Others rush to “RT” the day’s best one-liner: “Fred Travelena does a great Michael Jackson impression,” goes to @ChipChantry, listed as a comedian in his bio.
Bad news travels fast in the Twittersphere, and crafting 140-character tributes to the latest departed celeb has replaced the daily crossword puzzle.
But sometimes Twitter also brings us into the lives of those actually effected by a celebrity death. People who were all ready to post their clever “Kaboom!” jokes about Billy Mays’ passing were derailed by the bracingly personal tweets from one YoungBillyMays, the 24-year-old son of the world famous pitchman. Following Billy Mays III on the day of his dad’s death took us along on a rollercoaster of emotions, from the creepy (his first: “My dad didn’t wake up this morning. I’m sure you’ll all hear about it. It hasn’ t yet hit me but it’s about to”), to the touching (“Man, I miss him”), to, around three days later, the just plain lame (re-tweeting a fan who wrote, “Today on my way to work in the rainclouds I saw a cloud that literally looked like a ‘thumbs up'”).
Along the way, the young Mays fielded thousands of tweets from fans of his dad, sharing one-liners (“Heaven just got a lot cleaner”), charicatures and Photoshop tributes to the bearded, bombastic TV presence they all grew to love. The hastily assembled “twitfam” urged all to wear blue the next day in honor of Mays’ familiar workshirt-and-khakis uniform, and Billy III shared links to photos of the many who did.
By the third day, Mays was appearing on news programs, hocking his home-made album on MySpace and plotting a Billy Mays Memorial Foundation . . . and followers began to level off, some probably searching for the grandson of Karl Malden. But while it lasted, the passing of a pitchman became personal, through our mass access to the online diary of his loving son and a sudden means of immediate connection with a real person behind the familiar face.
In a half-vacant business park in Chandler, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, sits Gangplank, a 5,000 square foot office space that’s something of an anomaly in this dire economy: it’s actually filled with people, working. On this typical Wednesday morning, about 35 mostly young computer jockeys are spread out on 24 utilitarian IKEA tables, busily tapping away on their laptops, while down the hallway, five open-door offices are occupied by pairs of entrepreneurs leaning over each other’s desks, ardently swapping ideas.
Except most of the people buzzing about the bullpen today are not employed by Gangplank itself. Half, in fact, are not working for anybody.
Gangplank is the Phoenix area’s first “coworking” space, a twist on the old “free Wi-Fi” coffee shop environment that’s more about building a collaborative community out of the growing population of like-minded, skilled free-agents left office-less by the unemployment wreckage than selling them overpriced java and scones.
Three things have happened while the unemployed population has waited for the economy to rebound and new jobs to emerge. For starters, many of us have decided we don’t want ‘em — at least not the old style of jobs, top-down managed and rigorously controlled. We like our freedom, and the rewards for towing the company line have vanished. Secondly, we’ve finally discovered a use for all our social media links: our Twitter and Facebook pages are now our employment agents, marketing our skills and, surprisingly, paying the bills through referrals and leads to contract work. Lastly, thanks to the new frugality and the erosion of corporate benefits, we’ve discovered doing our own things may be enough. The paycheck we make may be equal to the quality of life we take.
Now enter coworking, a movement which physically gathers the new LinkedIn generation of self-employed freelancers and consultants into a whole new model of the workplace — the office as reinvented by those cast off by the old. In this office space, there’s no bullying supervisor roaming between the cubicles asking for mind-numbing TPS reports, and no downsizing efficiency experts nosing around to see who’s playing Tetris on company time. It’s the office as LAN party: young creative types toting their own rigs to link up and interact with others – only in this case for work, not play.
In “Laid Off, Inc.,” I take a look at this emerging movement, beginning with Gangplank, an experiment started by a group of Web developers who took advantage of the downturn to move into a space double the size of their old office for roughly the same rent, and then opened up the environment (complete with pool and foosball tables, a full Rock Band set for the Wii) to other free-agents in their field. It’s already paying off: five start-up companies have emerged from the collaborations since the space opened last October, netting the cooperative $3 million in business already, according to one of the principals.
“We’ve created gravity here,” he says. “A lot of smart people who’ve been tossed off by their employers are being pulled toward us now. And it’s working. We’re working!”