Pacific Symphony was playing Prokofiev at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Kevin O’Brien immediately organized a trip for his class of seven, including a planned potluck dinner of Zakuski (Russian small-plates) and one or two home-infused vodkas.
Former students, such as Ian Prichard, believe O’Brien shares his passion for education with his students by immersing them in unique and enriching experiences.
“I remember a Mandelstam poem that he had to pass off because he was too emotional to continue. Then the person who picked up had to pass it off to someone who couldn’t read through her tears, to me, who got up and left the room. That’s the kind of feeling that Professor O’Brien’s classes and teaching style generated,” said Prichard.
At a very young age O’Brien showed an aptitude for language and learning. He had a college level vocabulary in the second grade and went traveling in Europe for two and a half months at the end of his freshman year of high school.
“I had an unusual experience compared to that of my peers, because I had a sense of places beyond the United States. My parents always encouraged travel, culture and language from a very young age,” O’Brien said.
As his own greatest critic, he names his perfectionist attitude as a quality he tries to work on.
“I set high standards for myself and apply those standards to my students, which makes me appear harsh at times. But that doesn’t bother me as much and I am quite satisfied with the way things turned out for me,” said O’Brien.
Selected from a pool of 400 applicants, O’Brien began teaching at Chapman University. He would do so for the next 23 years as an English professor.
Myron Yeager, an English professor and colleague of O’Brien, met O’Brien in 1993 when he moved into the office next to his. He remembers seeing a “parade” of students waiting to talk with him and that each meeting was carried out with the same “sensitive and serious concern.”
“His mind is a forest of ideas and resources: rich, full, and covering a variety of areas. Across the years, that parade of students has continued,” said Yeager.
Wendy Salmond, an art professor who co-taught a class with O’Brien combining Russian avant-garde literature, art and film, described his boundless love for literature as the first thing she noticed about him. But O’Brien’s dedication to the works of Rumi and Tolstoy is not the only quality of his that students and colleagues rave about.
“Not the least of Kevin’s gifts is his exquisite and daring sense of color when it comes to clothes. It’s pure pleasure to see faces light up when he walks into class in green trousers and a violet shirt,” said Salmond.
With his office just across the hall from O’Brien’s, Mark Axelrod, an English professor, would often drop in for a chat about translations of French and Russian writers or recommendations for a new film he should watch.
“One of the most outstanding features about Kevin is his breadth of knowledge. He’s as comfortable talking about Tolstoy as he is about talking about Beckett or Virginia Woolf and his office is a cornucopia of world literature. When he retires I shall miss those informal chats, his recommendations and his keen insights into literature,” said Axelrod.
O’Brien not only impacted the lives of his colleagues, but also personally touched the lives of many of his students. When Amanda Styron started as a graduate student at Chapman, she felt anxious about speaking up in class or meeting professors during office hours. By the time she graduated, she had gained a true mentor, friend, and kindred spirit in O’Brien, who helped her overcome those fears and thrive.
“I credit Kevin O’Brien’s teaching with setting the tone for my entire academic career. I can honestly say that his Major Authors courses on Virginia Woolf and Leo Tolstoy quite literally changed my life, lighting a fire in me that continues to burn even today,” said Styron.
During his time at Chapman, he not only affected students’ lives, but also created change within the campus surrounding the LGBTQ+ community.
“He has been a leader among the LGBT faculty, and has strongly supported the students in their organization and its activities across the decades of his tenure at Chapman. Kevin is the picture of the student-centered faculty member on which Chapman has built its success,” said Yeager.
O’Brien is now semi-retired and writing a book examining Tolstoy’s War and Peace. He has been published three times and hopes to keep reading, writing, traveling, and pursuing other interests when he fully retires.