Thursday, June 14, 2012

MANNING — John O’Brien knows exactly where he was on the night of Dec. 31, 1973. And three weeks later.

The administrator at the Manning Regional Healthcare Center, a 1975 University of Notre Dame graduate, is to the history and athletics of his alma mater what Google is to everything else. The source. He can spins dates, names and, if you close your eyes, make you feel as if you are relaxing along the banks of the lakes of St. Mary and St. Joseph on a bracing February night in South Bend, Ind.

“There’s a feel you get when you walk on campus,” O’Brien said. “The sporting stuff is tangential.”

But not insignificant. Or forgettable.

On that New Year’s Eve, four decades ago, O’Brien, a Detroit native, watched as Notre Dame defeated Alabama in the Sugar Bowl 24-23 — a contender for college football’s game of the 20th century. The memorable gridiron match took place at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, the final year the Sugar Bowl used that venue. O’Brien had a great angle to watch the 36-yard pass from Irish quarterback Tom Clements to Robin Weber that sealed the game.

A junior at the time, O’Brien headed back to South Bend where on Jan. 19, 1974, Notre Dame ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak in men’s basketball, 71-70. Within just weeks he cheered for two of the more iconic games in Irish history.

But O’Brien, a history major who has devoured biographies of political leaders, has other, deeper, ways of showing allegiance to the blue and gold.

O’Brien and wife, Chris, a Spartan with a (gasp!) Michigan State degree, have three dogs — including a golden retriever named Sorin after the French priest, Father Edmund Sorin, who founded the University of Notre Dame in November 1842 in the then-wilds of Indiana. O’Brien once had a dog named Corby in honor of Father William Corby, the priest who blessed the “Irish Brigade” at the Battle of Gettysburg in the Civil War before going on to become president of Notre Dame.

Chris O’Brien does get some say with the couple’s beloved dogs. She rescued a poodle in Iowa Falls that went unclaimed (even after a front-page story in the local paper) and now lives in Manning with the O’Briens under the name Chien (French for dog).

O’Brien earned his master’s degree in business administration at the University of Detroit before beginning a 36-year career in the medical field. He spent 11 years at Henry Ford in Detroit, working his way up to assistant administrator of the Heart and Vascular Institute, and was then recruited to join the staff at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa. In 1986, he began his tenure there as the administrator for the surgery department, and in the next nine years, advanced to the position of vice president of the 746-bed teaching and referral hospital. He comes to Manning from Iowa Falls, where he was the CEO of Ellsworth Municipal Hospital.

In Manning since February, O’Brien is shepherding development of a new hospital. Manning Regional Healthcare Center plans to ask for bids in the next month to build a new 62,000-square-foot facility in the southern part of the community. Buoyed by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s announcement last Tuesday of a $21 million, low-interest, U.S. Department of Agriculture loan, hospital officials are now projecting that the medical center could be open within 18 to 24 months of the start of construction, likely slated for this summer.

The goal is to have an enclosed construction site by winter so work can continue through colder weather, hospital officials said.

“If we have a winter like last year it’s going to be wonderful,” O’Brien said.

Manning Regional Healthcare Center, celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, employs 200 people and has a $9 million annual impact on the Manning area.

Having worked in larger metro facilities, O’Brien is a convincing rural advocate, stressing that the mission of the Manning hospital is central to the way of life and economic fortunes of a vast sweep of southern Carroll County and neighboring territory.

“We make such an incredible difference in our communities,” he said of critical-access hospitals like Manning’s.

The O’Briens are embracing the full life in Manning as well. The couple have attended Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, and John’s joined the Manning Rotary.

“This is a nice place as far as hospitals go,” O’Brien said. “You can feel it when you walk in.”