J. Willard O’Brien, 90, former Dean of Villanova Law School and a devoted family man, died on Dec. 22, peacefully at his home in Wayne.
O’Brien grew up in the Bronx, New York. He played stickball in the streets, was a fine pitcher and a keen student. He attended Fordham University and Fordham Law School, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review. He paid his tuition by waiting tables at Schrafft’s and installing seat cushions in cars.
O’Brien was an Air Force intelligence officer during the Korean War and later served as a captain in the New York National Guard. He worked as a lawyer on Wall Street at Cahill, Gordon, Reindel and Ohl, before joining Syracuse University’s law faculty. In 1965, Villanova University School of Law recruited him to teach business courses. It’s at Villanova that O’Brien made his mark.
Generations of students (many of them now Philadelphia area lawyers) will remember O’Brien as a legendary Torts teacher. He was famous for his style—3-piece suits and a gold pocket watch, a twinkle in his eye, a wry sense of humor, and the Socratic method he used to train first-year students to think critically and speak precisely.
O’Brien quickly caught the attention of faculty members and administrators across the University. During campus unrest in the 1960s, O’Brien was asked to chair a University-wide committee to handle student demands. He proved to be a cool-headed mediator, a practical problem solver, and someone committed to hearing all voices, especially students’, which was unusual at the time.
In 1972, the law school faculty unanimously chose O’Brien to succeed Villanova’s founding Dean, Harold Gill Reuschlein. At 42, O’Brien was one of the youngest law school deans in the country. During his 11-year tenure, he ushered the law school into a new era. He significantly expanded the faculty (reducing the student-to-faculty ratio) and professionalized many of the law school’s administrative offices. He laid the foundation for more deliberate fund-raising efforts and comprehensive alumni engagement.
He made the law school more inclusive. In the 1970s and early 1980s, he changed the institution from one run exclusively by white men teaching mostly white male students to one where women made up half the student body, and women and minorities came to serve as professors, members of the school’s Board, and as senior administrators.
In 1983, he resigned as Dean to become the first Director of the Connelly Institute on Law and Morality, and also returned to full-time teaching. O’Brien was a member of the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Council on the Holocaust. He felt it was fundamental for lawyers and law students to fully appreciate the lessons of the Holocaust. He was also a member of the Canon Law Society and the Order of the Coif.
Following his retirement, he continued to participate at the University’s Inn of Court, an organization that promotes professionalism, civility, ethics and legal excellence, and is named in his honor.
“Dean O’Brien served our community as a memorable professor and a visionary dean, and he never stopped giving of himself to Villanova,” reflected Mark Alexander, Villanova Law School’s current dean. “We are a better law school due to the myriad contributions of Dean O’Brien. His days on earth have ended, but his legacy and spirit remain in our community.”
O’Brien is survived by his wife, Peggy. They met when O’Brien was 49. He proposed following a handful of dates. They spent forty wonderful years together. O’Brien always referred to Peggy as “My Love” and they could frequently be seen hand-in-hand at St. Thomas of Villanova Church where O’Brien was a parishioner, or in Wayne where they lived. O’Brien was a much-loved father to stepchildren Mitchell Gruner and Stephanie Gruner Buckley, as well as a cherished father-in-law and grandfather. He is also survived by his brother and sister, Richard O’Brien of Washington, D.C., and Alycia O’Brien Vivona of Hyde Park, New York, as well as their spouses, children and grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned for the spring.
In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to the Support Center for Child Advocates, the David F. and Constance B. Girard-diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance, or to a charity of your choice.
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Support Center for Child Advocates
David F. and Constance B. Girard: diCarlo Center for Ethics, Integrity and Compliance
800 E. Lancaster Ave, Villanova PA 19085
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