Written By: Colleen Kottke, Wisconsin State Farmer
EDEN – Pat O’Brien has been a familiar fixture on the auction block for over half a century, calling out for bids under tents, inside barns, gravel pits, banquet rooms and fairground arenas.
The Eden resident’s rolling banter will be noticeably absent when the county fair circuit across Wisconsin starts up again this summer. O’Brien who presided over auctions at the Wisconsin State Fair, nine county fairs along with the small Alto Farm Bureau fair and countless farm and estate sales and FFA banquets passed away at the age of 84 on May 15.
“This is just a tremendous loss for the ag industry,” said Waupun FFA advisor and ag teacher Tari Costello. “He was willing to help out whenever needed, whether it was Breakfast on the Farm or any of the fairs or FFA Alumni event. If you asked, he said yes. I can’t honestly think of a time he turned anyone down.”
Raised in a large family, O’Brien got his first taste of the auction business as a young man, helping out his father and uncle with the family business, O’Brien Brothers Auctioneers. Years later, Pat and his older brother, Jim, would take over the business running cattle, estate, farm and household auctions.
Along with his trucking business, O’Brien was well-known for his work at Midwest Livestock Producers in Lomira and later at the Milwaukee Stock Yard. Rod Drendel who started working for O’Brien at the Midwest Livestock barn in 1998 said his former boss and close friend was a true ambassador for the auction sales industry.
“He gained the respect of buyers as well as sellers in an industry where there’s a lot of trust required,” Drendel said. “He taught me that at the end of the day, your auction business is only as good as your word.”
During her eight-year stint at the KFIZ radio station, farm reporter RaeNell Halbur called O’Brien daily for the market report.
“I talked to that man almost every day about something or other,” she said. “He was just the person to call when you needed some information. He just loved to visit and talk to you.”
Lomira FFA advisor and ag teacher Dan Robinson who later served on the Fond du Lac Market Livestock Committee, tuned in each morning to hear O’Brien’s early market report.
“He would always sign off by saying ‘where competitive bidding sets the price!'” said Robinson who first met the affable auctioneer at the June Dairy Sale at Midwest Livestock.
“He was always ready to greet you. He always made the effort to say hello, shake your hand and ask how you were doing,” Robinson said. “He was a true professional and role model in our agricultural community.”
O’Brien and Marilyn, his wife of 60 years, were constant guests at FFA banquets each spring. Not only did O’Brien call fundraising auctions during the event, he was always on hand to present special achievement awards, including the Pat O’Brien Livestock Achievement Award.
“Each student that won this award knew it was a very special acknowledgement of their accomplishments in the area of livestock production,” Robinson said. “Each of the winners in Lomira for the past 34 years understood its meaning and appreciated the award very much.”
Former ag teacher and FFA advisor for the Campbellsport School District, Bob Panzer, says the O’Brien’s also sought to encourage students in their home school district by establishing a scholarship fund. Panzer says the O’Brien Scholarship Fund has granted over $50,000 in scholarships to Campbellsport students over the past 22 years.
“Pat and Marilyn spent hours selling tractor raffle tickets to fund the scholarship fund. Pat believed in the future of agriculture, great educational opportunities and in competitive athletics,” Panzer said. “What a great demonstration of putting your faith to work day in and day out in business and in community.”
One tractor raffle stands out in the mind of Mark Ryan, a close friend of O’Brien. The town of Byron farmer recalls phoning the auctioneer following the loss of Ryan’s father-in-law.
“We wondered what we were going to do with the Ford Ferguson tractor that belonged to my wife’s father. Pat was happy to raffle it off. I think our kid’s grandpa would have been happy knowing the tractor was used for something like that,” Ryan said. “It’s things like that that shows why Pat was so much a part of everyone’s life.”
O’Brien was an integral part of the Fond du Lac County Fair for well over 50 years. At least three generations of exhibitors in the market livestock project paraded their market animals around the sawdust lined auction ring under O’Brien’s watchful eye, including Fond du Lac County Fair Executive Director Matt Immel.
Like most young exhibitors waiting to sell their lamb, hog or steer, Immel recalls feeling a bit nervous waiting for his name to be called.
“I’ll never forget entering the ring…making eye contact with Pat who gave me a big smile, winked and nodded his head,” Immel said. “He had a way of making the exhibitors and the buyers feel comfortable. He was an advocate for all the youth in the ring whether he knew them personally or not.
“He was dedicated to helping that child have a positive experience and get top dollar for his or her animal. He knew these exhibitors were the future of agriculture and future leaders of our community,” he added.
Immel said the Fond du Lac County Fair has been blessed with decades of successful market livestock sales.
“This success would not have been possible without the support offered by his business and his family,” Immel said.
O’Brien was recognized for his support of local youth in the 4-H and FFA program in 2014 when he was inducted into the Wisconsin 4-H Hall of Fame sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Extension 4-H Youth Development program. He was also tapped to receive an honorary State FFA Degree as well as the Fond du Lac Friend of 4-H Award.
Halbur recalls being asked by the Fond du Lac County Market Livestock committee to present O’Brien with the Friend of the Fair Livestock Award.
“I had just buried my mother and was pretty emotional at the time. I was up there reading the dedication and looked up to see Pat crying…I just about lost it!” she said with a laugh. “He’s quite sentimental and this award really meant a lot to him.”
Mixed with O’Brien’s tears was a lot of laughter, Ryan said.
“He loved to laugh and wanted others to be happy too. He was always thinking of others. He never forgot to call and wish you a happy birthday,” Ryan said. “Everyone knew Pat; he had connections with everybody.”
Ryan believes O’Brien’s mantra in life was summed up in his upbeat sign-off from his daily radio market report.
“I’ll always remember him saying, ‘there are no strangers, just friends we haven’t met yet. Thank you folks and have a good day,'” Ryan said.
O’Brien’s longtime ringman Drendel said it best, “He always saw the best in people and was always positive,” Drendel said. “He was a friend to everybody and will be really missed.”