Neal R. O'Brien
May 25, 1937 – March 26, 2019
Potsdam - Neal R. O´Brien, 81, of West Stockholm, NY passed away peacefully surrounded by his family on Tuesday, March 26th, 2019 at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington Vermont. Neal was predeceased by his wife of 55 years, Kathryn (Gronberg) O´Brien. He is survived by his daughter, Rebecca O´Brien and her husband Terry McElroy (sons Michael and Brian); his son Tyler O´Brien, Tyler´s wife Ingrid Carlstein-Reyes and their children Rowan and Galen O´Brien-Carlstein; and his youngest daughter Amber (O´Brien) Haller and her husband Patrick Haller and children Finn and Penelope Haller. Born and raised in Newark, Ohio, Neal was the only child of Raymond and Elsie Eleanor (Pryor) O´Brien. Although an only child, he spent many of his childhood days with his first-cousin Fred Pryor (also of Newark, Ohio), who was like a brother to him for the rest of their lives. After graduating from Newark High School as class President in 1955, he attended DePauw University and graduated in 1959, then went on to earn a Ph.D. in Geology from The University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana in 1963. While he was at the University of Illinois-Champaign/Urbana, he met a lovely geology student named Kathryn Gronberg - they fell in love and went on to marry on September 15 of 1962. In 1963 Neal joined the teaching staff at SUNY Potsdam and served from 1970-1985 as the first chairman of the newly formed geology department. Throughout his university career, Neal dedicated himself wholly not only to excellence in teaching, but also to extensive research, often involving use of the scanning electron microscope, continually refining techniques of analysis - for both his own research and supervised undergraduate student research. During sabbatical leaves, he conducted post-doctoral geology research at Kyoto University, Japan from 1969-70 and again in 1977-78. Both trips were taken with the family, which afforded the unique and valuable opportunity for all 5 members of the O´Brien family to live in Japan for these years, as well as extensive travel overseas. Neal absolutely loved to teach, passing on his passion for geology not only to geology majors, but also igniting interest in students only taking his class as a requirement - always infusing his teaching with his ever-present sense of humor. Reader´s Digest was his joke book of choice, as all who were close to him knew! Dr. O´Brien´s teaching and research activity has resulted in the following awards: Chancellor's Award for Teaching (SUNY Potsdam 1977); President's Award for Excellence in Research and Creative Endeavors (SUNY Potsdam 1987); Distinguished Teaching Professor (SUNY Potsdam 1998). He has published over 50 research papers and 40 abstracts and in 1990, he co-authored with Roger M. Slatt (U. of Oklahoma) the book ¨Argillaceous Rock Atlas¨. He retired as professor emeritus in 2006, but had continued serving the department as a student advisor and conducting further research using the scanning electron microscope. Neal was dedicated to taking care of his family, going above and beyond in supporting all three of his children in their individual endeavors. He adored all of his grandchildren, always up for sharing a joke with them and in more recent years channeling his creativity into making miniature dioramas for them as well. His humor, joviality, and generous love will be forever missed by all who knew him. Calling hours will be held at the Garner Funeral Service in Potsdam, NY on Friday, March 29th, 2019 from 4 - 6 pm, with funeral service to follow. Burial will follow at the West Stockholm Cemetery. Condolences on line can be shared @www.garnerfh.com.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Potsdam College Foundation, 44 Pierrepont Avenue, Potsdam, NY 13676. Memorial contributions will be added to the Neal R. O'Brien & William T. Kirchgasser Undergraduate Research Fund at SUNY Potsdam
- Visitation Friday, March 29, 2019
- Memorial Service Friday, March 29, 2019
- Burial Friday, March 29, 2019
Neal R. O'Brien
March 30, 2019
Neal’s research work with us at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado brought innovative new insights into our understanding about how the fossils were preserved by mucus mats in shale. His ideas still live on in the way the fossils are interpreted by the National Park Service for hundreds of thousands of visitors.
He and I went on several field expeditions to other fossil sites in Nevada, Colorado, Oregon and Montana to test his hypothesis, and he was a real joy to spend time with in the field. I recall his many phone calls of excitement with the discoveries of each new SEM image. Innovation is what science is about, and Neal challenged our way of looking at things. He once wrote me in an email that “I hope the world was ready for our mucus hypothesis – regardless, the work allowed me to be creative and to be a geologist.” He was a wonderful man and I will miss him.
March 29, 2019
Neal and I worked together for the Illinois State Geological Survey. During the summers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, he and I collected samples of clay deposits from across the Illinois (see photo below), and tested them for their potential industrial use during the winter. Neal went on to head the geology department at Potsdam SUNY and continued basic research on clay minerals. Over the years, he shared his productive research with me. His work was well respected. I will miss my old friend.
March 28, 2019
Neal was my graduate advisor in 1971-1972, I don't think I would have made it without his help. I was the first MS in geology/education from the geology department and it was a challenge.
"The difficult we do right away and the impossible takes a little longer."
I am Professor of Environmental Science and Geology at Oregon Coast Community College because of the wonderful professors in the Potsdam Geology Dept. I try to teach my students like Neal did with humor and love of learning about the geology and life.
While Neal will be missed, he is still a glowing example to all of us who were lucky to have known him.
March 28, 2019
I too am sad to hear about Dr OBrien's passing. He was my guidance counselor and he encouraged me to enter the 3-2 Civil Engineering and Geology program. He will be greatly missed but never forgotten.
Amber St John
March 28, 2019
My deepest condolences to Dr. O'Brien's family.
While I had known since Earth Science in 9th grade that I wanted to major in geology, Dr. O'Brien helped make that dream a reality. I couldn't have asked for a better academic advisor and mentor. Not only did Neal give me a great research topic that involved learning to use the SEM, but he also helped me climb out of my comfort zone and my too shy to talk shell when asking me to TA his Intro to Geology labs. I doubt I'd be where I am in the lab right now, leading a work group, if not for his tutelage.
Thank you for all the lessons, Dr. O'Brien, in academics and in life. I'll always remember to carry that dime in my pocket in the event that a slide projector carousel breaks, and I hope you'll be able to see that I still draw stick figures with top hats next to trees or giant rabbits as judges of scale in my field notebooks. But most of all, thank you for always making geology fun. I will certainly miss you.
March 28, 2019
My deepest condolences to Neil's family - I know he will be greatly missed. I have fond memories of working with Neal on many of his grant submissions over the years at SUNY Potsdam. He was always such a pleasure to work with and I'll never forget his big smile and positive presence . After taking care of business he would always ask about my children and then share stories about his own - the great love and pride he had for his family always evident.
March 28, 2019
Neal, you are my most important influence. While my father introduced me to geology, you GAVE me geology. Because of you, I am who I am today. My first strong memory of you was in the early morning at Timmerman Hall, on a weekend in late September 1989, where I was volunteering at an event we were hosting for high school students. As a college freshman only a month into my experience, I hadn't realized that the food services on campus opened later on weekends. You took one look at me, smiled, and offered me a Reeses Peanut Butter cup. The rest is history (and I was able to make it to lunch :-) ).
Thank you for your guidance, support, laughs, hugs, and humanity. Thank you for introducing me to the people who would help steward my career, for believing in me, for listening when I needed an ear. Thank you for introducing me to shale, research, the SEM, Roger Slatt, and Lisa Pratt. Thank you for your emails, and for getting so excited whenever I could come for a visit. Thank you for that last visit, when I called you from Bill's office and within 20 minutes you were at the department, meeting my family and smiling.
I miss you, my friend and mentor.
Thank you. It's never enough, but thank you.
Richard Del Guidice
March 27, 2019
I had the pleasure of working with Neal for several years, especially when he did all he could to procure the SEM for his Department. Then and in all he did, Neal was all about his students to whom he gave unheard of access to that piece of equipment. He was a consumate professional, a kind and good natured man who always had a good joke to share. One of the very finest people Potsdam was fortunate to employ.