SIOUX CITY | Just outside the Sioux City federal courtroom named in his honor hangs a portrait of Judge Donald E. O'Brien.
The plaque beneath the portrait lists his dates of service: 1978-
It wasn't an error. O'Brien never retired. He was still serving on the bench until he died Tuesday at age 91.
"He just always loved work and he loved going to the office. In a way, it kept him alive," said his nephew David O'Brien, who grew up in Sioux City and practices law in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
His long judicial service came after a robust political career in which O'Brien was an instrumental campaign organizer for Democratic presidential candidates from Robert Kennedy to Jimmy Carter.
"Every Democrat in western Iowa owes a huge debt to Don O'Brien and (his brother) Jack O'Brien. They were Democrats back when it took courage to declare yourself a Democrat. In the late '50s, Iowa was about as red a state as you could get," said Al Sturgeon, a Sioux City lawyer, former state legislator and longtime Democratic Party activist.
And before that, O'Brien served in the U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II. As a bombardier on a B-17 bomber, he served 30 missions over Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and five air medals.
O'Brien could tell stories, but you'd have to ask. He wasn't one to brag about his achievements, David O'Brien said.
"He won (the Distinguished Flying Cross) and we never knew it. I just found out about it a couple years ago," his nephew said. "If you didn't know he was a federal judge, he would never tell you."
That humility carried into the courtroom, where O'Brien made sure everyone got a fair hearing, no matter their social status, said Stan Munger, a Sioux City lawyer who tried several cases before him.
"What you could predict with Judge O'Brien was, he had a passion for his work and a passion for human beings," Munger said. "He really cared about the people he was dealing with. They weren't just people passing through."
O'Brien received his law degree from Creighton University in Omaha in 1948. He served as a part-time prosecutor for the city of Sioux City from 1949-53. He was elected Woodbury County attorney in 1955 and served until 1958.
O'Brien ran for Congress in Iowa's 8th District in 1958 and 1960, losing both times to Republican Charles Hoeven.
During that 1960 campaign, he met John F. Kennedy when the future president made a campaign stop in Sioux City. That acquaintance led to Kennedy appointing O'Brien U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Iowa in 1961. O'Brien left the position in 1967 to resume private practice, and he became a well-known Democratic party operative nationally.
"Don was the political go-to guy," Sturgeon said.
O'Brien helped run Sen. Robert Kennedy's campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination in the Nebraska and South Dakota primaries in 1968. He called Kennedy to inform him of his victory in South Dakota the night Kennedy was fatally shot in a California hotel.
"Don was one of the last people to talk to Bobby Kennedy," David O'Brien said.
O'Brien would later manage Hubert Humphrey's presidential campaign in Southern California in 1968. He was also involved in George McGovern's 1972 presidential campaign and in 1976 was Jimmy Carter's Michigan campaign manager.
Carter nominated O'Brien to be a federal judge in Iowa in 1978. O'Brien would later serve as chief judge from 1985-92, when he took senior status.
The change in status didn't lead to much of a change in his work habits. He continued to maintain a substantial caseload and until recently was going to his office at the Federal Building almost daily.
"Judge Donald E. O'Brien was a giant of the federal judiciary," said U.S. District Judge Mark W. Bennett, of Sioux City. "He dispensed justice with unfailing kindness and an unsurpassed wellspring of compassion. Sioux City, the state of Iowa and the nation have lost a great public servant. He was a man of impeccable integrity, with great love for his faith, family and our federal court. Everyone who knew him or came before him in his role as a federal judge were blinded by his goodness, enormous heart and passion for justice. All of us at the federal courthouses throughout Iowa deeply mourn his passing."
Service arrangements are pending with Meyer Brothers Colonial Chapel in Sioux City.