From the Archives: The Walter and Laura O’Brien collection

By Jane Cullen, MHS volunteer

A wonderful new collection is available for researchers: The Walter Alphonsus, Jr. and Laura Mae Manchester O’Brien collection (Coll. 2962). Given to us by Julia O’Brien-Merrill, the daughter of Walter and Laura O’Brien, this collection contains the manuscript papers, business records, printed materials, FBI record, books, correspondence, photographs, genealogical research, newspaper articles, sound recordings, and several objects that tell the story of Walter and Laura O’Brien.

Julia Jane
Julia O’Brien-Merrill and Jane Cullen (MHS volunteer)
Jane with book
Jane Cullen, our volunteer who processed the collection, standing next to the collection and holding Julia O’Brien-Merrill’s book “Charlie on the M.T.A.: Did he Ever Return?”

Walter Alphonsus O’Brien, Jr. was born in 1914, the fourth child of Walter A. O’Brien from Portland and Susan Ann Crosby (born in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts and raised in Portland, Maine), who were both third generation Irish Americans. Walter had one brother, Francis Massey O’Brien (b. 1908) and three sisters, Mary Louise O’Brien O’Connor (b. 1910), Anna Kathleen O’Brien Gardenier (b. 1912), and Dorothy Elizabeth O’Brien Picard (b. 1921). Walter was raised in Portland Maine, graduated from Portland High School, and Gorham Normal School (later Gorham State Teachers College and today University of Southern Maine) at the age of 20.

Instead of taking a teaching job, Walter went to sea in the mid-1930s performing various radio and communications jobs. It was while at sea that O’Brien discovered a taste and talent for politics and became a union organizer.

In 1939, he married Laura Mae Manchester, who was born in Bridgton, Maine in 1920 but raised in Portland, Maine. Laura’s parents were Donald Baxter Manchester and Ethel Lillian Pendexter, both of longtime Maine families. Laura had two siblings, Melvin Lyle (b. 1921) and Juanita Ann Manchester (b. 1926); all graduating from Deering High School.

Walter joined the Merchant Marines and served during World War II. After the war, the O’Briens moved to Boston and Walter took a position as port agent with the American Communications Association, a union affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). Walter and Laura plunged into politics in Boston and joined the Massachusetts Chapter of the Progressive Party (founded in Boston April 1948). The Progressive Party’s candidate for the 1948 presidential election was Henry A. Wallace of Iowa. He was an inventor and publisher who had served as FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Commerce.

Walter A. O’Brien was drafted as a 1948 Congressional candidate from both the Progressive Party and the Democratic Party in Massachusetts. O’Brien ran against Christian Herter, a Republican incumbent and future governor of Massachusetts. The O’Briens worked tirelessly to elect Wallace however he received less than 2% of the Massachusetts vote and only 2.4% of the national vote.

O’Brien fared better than Wallace, capitalizing on his Irish surname and the fact that he also ran on the combined Democratic and Progressive Parties ticket; however, he lost to Herter by a 2 to 1 margin.  In 1949, Walter O’Brien ran for mayor of Boston on the platform that the Boston Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) not raise their rates to bail out stockholders of the privately-owned transit company.  Campaign slogans and songs were popular then, and O’Brien partnered with The Boston Peoples Artists, also like-minded Progressives, and the M.T.A. song was written after the current mayor increased the MTA fares by 50%. Public outrage followed and the M.T.A. song was a big hit and campaign boost to O’Brien. O’Brien lost the Boston Mayoral race to John B. Hynes, finishing last with barely 1% of the vote. Laura O’Brien, also active in the Progressive Party, ran for Boston City Council in 1951. Both remained Progressive Party members who were passionate about their political candidates.

Despite the demise of the Progressive Party in Massachusetts and nationally in the early 1950s, the O’Brien’s continued to pursue their liberal ideology. The 1950s fostered in an era of the “Red Scare” and nationally the House Committee on Un-American Activities, led by Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin, was “going strong,” blacklisting Hollywood actors, screenwriters and directors and working to execute the Rosenbergs. Massachusetts had its own Commission of Communism and this committee held more than 50 public hearings and private executive sessions calling scores of witnesses to testify.

Both Walter and Laura O’Brien, along with their good friend Florence Hope Luscomb, all three members of the Progressive Party, were questioned by this Commission and refused to answer sensitive questions. As a result, 85 people in Massachusetts were named “Communists or followers of the Communist Party Line” in an official published report. The O’Briens, with many others, rejected this report and vowed to “continue to fight for the rights of labor and civil liberties” guaranteed in the United States Constitution. McCarthyism in the 1950s resulted in the O’Briens being followed by the FBI and essentially blacklisted by the Commission.

Unable to get jobs, Walter and Laura O’Brien and their two children, Julia Massey O’Brien and Kathleen Manchester O’Brien, moved to Gray, Maine in 1956, together with Laura’s sister Juanita and her husband Chuck Wojchowski and their two young children Rachel and Don. In 1960, they all settled in Portland, Maine and lived there for ten years.  Walter sold cars and then became a librarian while Laura, at the age of 37, started college and completed a teaching degree at Gorham State College. She went on to obtain a graduate degree in the mid-1960s and became a Reading Specialist in the Gray public schools. Walter and Laura had a third daughter, Amy Pendexter O’Brien, born in 1964.

In the late 1950s the Kingston Trio discovered the M.T.A. song that Walter’s campaign had used, changed some wording, and released their own version on their second album in June 1959. The Kingston Trio dropped the name Walter A. O’Brien and replaced it with George O’Brien. The song became a hit and for a time Walter and Laura were thrown into the spotlight. Walter enjoyed this attention; Laura, not so much.

In the 1960s, Walter pursued his Master’s Degree and became prominent on the State of Maine Library Commission for a number of years. He served as librarian for Lewiston Public Library, University of Southern Maine Library, and Westbrook High School Library. In retirement, from 1980 to 1990, Walter and Laura owned a small bookstore in Cundys Harbor, Maine, called “The Book Peddlers.” The business, also called “Parnassus on Wheels,” was open “only in the summer, by chance.” Walter specialized in Maine books and Laura in children’s books.

Walter A. O’Brien died in Maine in 1998 at the age of 83. Laura died two years later at the age of 79. Both died in Cundys Harbor, Maine.

The Walter A. Jr. and Laura M. O’Brien Collection contains limited information about Walter’s brother, Francis M. O’Brien, who in his own right was known for his love of books and his Antiquarian Bookstores in the Portland area.  The collection also contains information about Florence Hope Luscomb, a close friend of Walter and Laura O’Brien. Florence was a fellow member of the Progressive Party; was one of the first women graduates of MIT in 1909 and a lifelong activist for women’s rights, civil rights, labor rights and civil liberties. In 1998, with the help of Walter and Laura O’Brien, Florence Luscomb was honored by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women. A bust of Florence Luscomb, along with other prominent women in Massachusetts history, now hangs in the State House honoring their many and varied contributions.

In 2017, Julia M. O’Brien-Merrill, Walter and Laura’s middle daughter, honored her father’s legacy by writing and publishing a children’s book entitled Charlie on the M.T.A. Did He Ever Return?  The book, published by Applewood Books, Commonwealth Editions, in Carlisle, Massachusetts, includes actual historical facts and a timeline in addition to the lyrics of the original campaign song. It is illustrated by Caitlin Marquis. The book is included in the collection.

We are thrilled to have this collection here at Maine Historical Society, and especially delighted that Julia O’Brien will be sharing her children’s book with us on November 11th!

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