Building Bridges: An Interview With Justin O’Brien

In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

The man you will meet this month is both a newcomer to the area, and someone who has a lifelong appreciation for the history of Mineral Point. In fact, the best man at his parents’ wedding was George Fiedler, who later wrote “Mineral Point, A History.” Justin O’Brien remembers it being on the bookshelf in his childhood home in Chicago. As he grew up the pages of that book told of a town built of stone, steeped in history and surrounded by beauty. After a lifetime of appreciation, Justin and his wife, Karen, made Mineral Point their home just five years ago.

Before moving here, Justin had lived his entire life in the bustle of the big city; first as a child in his parents’ home on the north side of Chicago, then as a teenager who found himself caught up in the midst of the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention, and finally as an adult working in the advertising industry and raising a family. 

Through it all Mineral Point called to him. Was it that book? Was it the memory of a weekend spent sleeping in a farmer’s field outside of town where he rendezvoused with his brother, who was living in Trempealeau County at the time? A convenient halfway point? What seems true is that each time Justin visited the area he fell more in love with the calm, the beauty, the quiet and the ability to experience the seasons here. The place drew him back over and over, and now, the wonder in his voice as he describes why he chose to retire here reflects those attributes. Whatever drew him, Justin couldn’t be happier that he is settled in this town where Wisconsin began.

Justin O’Brien’s book, “Chicago Yippee! ‘68” tells the story of his experience as a 17-year-old living in Chicago the week of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention and ensuing protests and riots, pictured above and below. To order Justin’s book, see http://garretroom.com.

After so many years of visiting and vacationing, Justin and Karen knew that this was where they wanted to retire. Their three boys were grown and building their own lives in California, Chicago and Springfield, Illinois. The visits to Mineral Point had become more important and more frequent. They began the process of finding their own home in the heart of this Cornish town. While he did not say, I imagine that the house they chose is a traditional Cornish stone one, full of history. (It turns out I am wrong, but the foundation is stone.) He did say that the house they chose may have once been visited by a distant relative coming from Sinsinawa as a nun.

The local history, which has been honored and preserved in Mineral Point, continues to draw Justin in. When I asked him what he values about his chosen community he quickly spoke of how much he appreciates the efforts made to preserve its heritage. He also spoke rather eloquently about the beauty found in the surrounding area. It seems that this city boy just can’t get enough of the country life now that he is here. This has been a great place for him to open up; life is less compartmentalized here. When he remembers all of the years he lived in the city, he doesn’t remember fully experiencing seasons … and here the seasons each have their own beauty, and all are inspirational.

This beauty has made the transition from urban life to rural less poignant than he expected. When he and Karen finally made the move up here, he worried that he might clamor for the comfort and familiarity of the city. However, he has been surprised at how much he does not miss it. Certainly, he misses his friends, and the music scene in which he was deeply involved. But, as seems to be his way, he responded to that missing by participating and working to bring his passion for music here. He helped to bring a blues and roots festival to Mineral Point in 2019, and hopes it will be back again this summer. At the same time, the bustle of the city has been replaced with a “daily appreciation of life,” which seems to bring him both joy and peace. And maybe even carries a message to all of the rest of us who live here to embrace what we have …

One of the ways in which Justin has become involved in his new community is through Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts (one of Mineral Point’s true treasures!). Last year he shared his book, “Chicago Yippee! ’68” at a virtual faculty and local author reading during the annual Writing Retreat. The book tells his story of being a 17-year-old living in Chicago the week of the 1968 Democratic Convention. In perhaps a moment of foreshadowing, his family was vacationing in Wisconsin at the time and he had asked to stay in the city. The book is profoundly moving, as well as historically engaging. 

Justin came of age during a tumultuous time in U.S. history. He remembers the impact the murders of President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy had on his adolescent heart. At the same time the horrors of the Vietnam War were increasingly disturbing to this well-read and thoughtful young man. He watched as some of his classmates and neighbors were drafted and didn’t come home, and it disturbed and frightened him.

Music had always provided a respite for Justin and these circumstances called for just that. The folk and blues musicians who brought him solace were increasingly singing protest songs and he was getting more and more politically energized. No wonder that attending high school felt insignificant. He was itching to be a part of what was happening all around him.

I encourage you to find and read his book. Its view of the 1968 Convention and the events surrounding are made even more poignant in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests and the attack on the Capitol last winter. At times it is heart-wrenching to read both for what it is describing, and for how familiar it all sounds.

To talk with Justin about those experiences is to hear a man who knows what a mob feels like when it gets out of control, and who knows what police brutality looks like up close, and was scarred by those things. He also knows that his experience was safer because of the color of his skin, and that his trauma is lesser because it was not from the jungles of Vietnam, but the streets of Chicago. Nonetheless, he experienced fear, and he still feels distrust, and even trauma. But he will say that he has been able to not let those scars drive him. Instead he has spent a lifetime speaking out, being involved and always working to be his best self for his family.

The personal drive to be his best self brought him to Mineral Point, and may have been part of what got him nominated for the Iowa County Board of Supervisors after only living there for two years. He had learned that summer week in 1968 that you “had to participate to make a difference” (p. 73), and it seems that participating in Mineral Point is a perfect fit for him. He advocates for the community, feeling that he and Karen belong here. Multiple times he joked that the community is so tolerant that they even accept him. He sees in Mineral Point a place that hasn’t abandoned its history, a place that values its agrarian roots and also has strong creative forward motion. He hopes for the future that the rural way of life, which has been such a blessing for him, will remain, and that advancements like broadband can bring progress to the area. He hopes and actively works for “progress without losing what exists.”

“What exists” in Mineral Point is a liberating place for Justin. His passion for the community, the area and always participating can be an inspiration for us all. 

Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email jennifermrkrr2@gmail.com.