Tim A. O'Brien
The following are reflections on the Academy from Mr. O’Brien, an attorney and journalist who covered the U.S. Supreme Court for ABC News for more than 22 years. His many awards and honors include an Emmy for his contributions to CNN’s coverage of the September 11 terrorism attacks.
I was honored and pleased when I was asked to write a short piece about “Success Beyond Woodward” but the assignment—even for a veteran journalist—turned out to be a challenge. For one, “success” means different things to different people. Not only that—it is, I discovered, a moving target that can change dramatically over time.
Permit me if you will, some history: In the late 1950s, Georgia Military Academy (now Woodward) was a boarding school with strict discipline. We cadets had to line up at attention each weekday morning at 6:45 a.m. sharp when a recorded version of “Reville” was played on the campus PA system. Each day, a different cadet would be selected anonymously as the “Officer of the Day.” He was required to report to Rugby Hall (now the Carlos Administration Building) at the crack of dawn and, at 6:30 a.m., play a 45 RPM vinyl disk of “First Call” to wake up the cadet corps. Several friends and I found out who the Officer of the Day was going to be and set his alarm clock two hours ahead. Cadets came running out of their dorms into the darkness shortly after 4:30 in the morning. “Gollll-eeee,” some shrieked. “It sure is dark out this morning.” We, or course, had to run out right along with them so as not to be discovered as the pranksters. And we never were. What a riot! Now that was success!
I was not, however, particularly successful as a student, and I did get a lot of demerits, unlike my twin brother who got no demerits and was a cadet officer (a 1st Lieutenant, no less). Once he even gave me demerits for “Disrespect To A Cadet Officer.” (I deserved them.)
“Captain Jack,” as we called him, required us to memorize English poetry. Whaaaat? But we did. And when he demanded—and got—more out of us than we thought we were capable of giving, we began to genuinely respect him. We won the state debate title that year. Captain Farabee gave me the lead role in the senior play, “Arsenic and Old Lace.” He believed in me. I remember how touched I was when, upon graduation, he autographed my senior yearbook quoting scripture (Luke 12:48), “To whom much is given, much will be required.” Touched that he would be referring to ….me?
Through my experiences on the GMA debate and wrestling teams, I came to understand the link between effort and achievement and the importance of not giving up. That has served me well. In the fierce competition of network television news and many other highly competitive professions, it seems almost everyone has talent. That’s a given. But perseverance and focus? That’s not so common.
After GMA, I enrolled at Michigan State as a math major uncertain where it might take me. Which was nowhere. I was uninspired—more interested in playing records on the campus radio station than doing homework. My father, who I barely knew, had passed away when I was 12. My mother and her new husband were having their own problems and decided my grades did not justify their continued financial support. And I struggled. Knowing I’d soon hit bottom without a degree, I wrote bad checks to cover my tuition. And I was freezing. Winters in Michigan are cold and hard. When it seemed things couldn’t get worse, my girlfriend left me for some pre-med student. I tried hard to win her back, but she married him. The war in Vietnam was escalating and along with it, the draft here in the United States. This was not an auspicious time in my life.
I signed on with a local radio-television outlet in Lansing doing odd jobs part time. There was very little actual radio work until I volunteered to read the hourly news for free from midnight until 6 a.m. The news director got to know me, rely on me, and eventually offered me a real position as a radio reporter. It was the mid-1960s and television was just coming into its own. Scheming to move from radio to television, I learned to shoot and edit film and volunteered to do that—also for free—anytime, day or night. And I loved it. I even developed a passion for editing film. Small beginnings but a career was launched.
Better jobs came along. In 1968, I moved from Lansing to Detroit. Hired as a TV reporter, I quickly—and surprisingly—rose to anchor the evening news after it became apparent that the incumbent anchor had significant alcohol-related issues. From there, I was on to the CBS affiliate in Washington where I worked as a reporter, picking up a master’s degree in government and politics on the side at the University of Maryland.
Three years later, I accepted a position co-anchoring the 5 p.m., 6 p.m., and 10 p.m. news at the NBC affiliate in New Orleans. The station’s promotion of our broadcast was enormous. My picture would appear on billboards, in magazines and newspapers and throughout the day on our own TV station. Although my name would become a household word, I was becoming disenchanted with local news—the murders, fires, and floods. The reporting was accurate and these events were newsworthy by conventional standards but the cumulative effect was to present a depressingly inaccurate picture of our world. Add in the inherent instability in the television industry, I decided to enroll in law school.
I saw law school as a “no lose” proposition. If I wanted to stay in the news business, it couldn’t help but help. And if I wanted to get out, it would give me a place to go. In between broadcasts one evening, I shared with my colleagues over dinner that “more than anything, I would love to become the legal affairs correspondent for one of the three major television networks.” (There were only three networks at that time, ABC, CBS, and NBC.) I remember my co-anchor shot back, “Right! You and Walter Mitty. Fat chance!” A pipe dream? Yes. But even a pipe dream has its own excuse for being and the fact that such a wild fantasy may never be fulfilled, I explained, does not diminish my other reasons for going to law school.
In those days, local reporters would send out resumes to the networks like most people send out Christmas cards. I never got anything back until the bureau chief at ABC News in Washington, D.C., noticed that—in addition to considerable experience—I had a law degree. I was hired in 1977 as a general assignment correspondent, naturally gravitated to the U.S. Supreme Court and, a year or so later was assigned to cover the court—permanently and exclusively—as the network’s legal affairs correspondent, a prestigious and well-paying post and a wild dream realized. OMG. Was this really happening? Pinch me.
People whose opinions I valued (and desperately needed) began to notice, including my estranged parents. It touched me to the core when my alma mater, GMA now Woodward, honored me with its Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1986. Michigan State followed suit a few years later (even though it had taken me more than six years to graduate with barely a 2.0 average). And I felt proud.
While I still feel good—and proud—about how things have turned out for me, my perspective on success has changed in ways I never would have—or even could have—imagined standing in the back of Third Platoon, “E” Company so many years ago.
A few examples:
Celebrity. This may be the biggest deception of all. The best thing about having celebrity status is the opportunity to fully recognize you don’t need it. You give up privacy, individuality, freedom. I had a chap come up to me in the supermarket one Saturday morning to tell me how much better I looked on television. Don’t need that. It would be one thing if you could turn it on and off at will. You cannot. Given a choice—one or the other—anonymity is the prize, not celebrity.
Money. Important, sure. But not all it’s cracked up to be. I found that once I paid off the house and put the kids through school, money no longer mattered. While money and the things it can buy may be nice to have, the desire for material well-being can be ever escalating. That I had everything that I needed was enough for me to turn to more important aspirations. I didn’t plan it this way. It just happened. The profit motive, such a driving force throughout much of my life, has all but evaporated (although I still buy a lottery ticket now and then).
Influence. There was no internet in those days, nor even cable television. The three television networks had enormous influence. Millions of Americans would time their day to be home for the evening news. And I had their ear, explaining Supreme Court decisions on a regular basis over many years. This can be an ego trip until you realize that the people who really count—my friends, my family, my children—are no more attentive to me because I happen to be on national television. Once I got home and re-entered my own real world, the fact that I could talk about the Supreme Court on ABC News meant absolutely zero.
Luck. I had discounted luck as an element of success, thinking bad luck, over time, is offset by good luck. “Bad luck” was, in my view, the loser’s lament. I was wrong again. Luck can be a huge factor in achieving success, as it was in mine. For example: The timing of my law degree and subsequent application to ABC News was a total shot in the dark, but—as luck would have it—a bulls-eye. But that’s still not it. The real luck in my life was in the choice of my spouse. Love doesn’t always have taste and really good people can make really bad choices. There may be no single greater indicia of success than the deep, abiding affection of a lifetime partner. My wife “Petie” and I have now been together more than 46 years—time enough for her to teach me, by example, that there is more to be gained in giving than in receiving. It was not an easy sell but that lesson has enriched me in innumerable ways.
I have also been blessed with good health. I work hard to stay in shape but sheer luck has had a lot to do with that too.
Technically, I am now “retired.” I prefer to think of it as having reached a new plateau, reconnecting with things that are really important to me. Being on Woodward’s Governing Board is certainly one of them. I now freelance much longer news reports for public television, and I get to edit them myself. The audience is small, and the pay is minimal. The opportunity to do considerably more meaningful stories, however, is priceless. I love biking and, in the summertime, lead bicycle tours in Vermont’s lush Green Mountains for Discovery Bicycles Tours, Inc. I’ve always been a baseball fan. A group of us chipped in to buy season tickets for the Baltimore Orioles. They made me their ticket manager. Although I may have had the appearance on a number of occasions, this may be as close as I’ve ever come to real power.
What may give me the greatest satisfaction of all may be the accumulation of memories over the years. I savor them all, bitter and sweet. Many go back to GMA and the friends I made as a boarding student there. The internet has helped us stay close. From time to time, I still wake up at night smiling, sometimes laughing, about the little things, including ridiculous childhood pranks. What was I thinking?And the biggest surprise? It just may be that the indicia of success that means so much to me today—the things that give me the greatest pleasure and sense of well-being—were so easily within reach all along.
Master's in Government & Politics, University Of Maryland
J.D., Loyola University School of Law