Dorothy O’Brien: “Appreciate SoHE’s Curious Community”

Dorothy O'Brien

SoHE’s 2019 Distinguished Alumni Award honed her desire for learning at UW—and has applied that in her life ever since.

This article is part of a short series profiling the four winners of the School of Human Ecology’s 2019 Alumni Awards. View all the winners in this earlier article, and see their individual profiles week by week in our news & events newsletter. Then, be sure to join us in honoring them—and connecting with SoHE friends old and new—at this year’s Back to School event September 27, 2019.

The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes graduates of the School of Human Ecology who have achieved significant recognition in their chosen profession or life’s work. Through this work, they have improved the quality of life for others and brought honor to themselves, their community, the School of Human Ecology, and the University of Wisconsin.

Trying to arrange the timeline and geography of Dorothy O’Brien’s storied life can leave one scratching one’s head. But maybe that’s precisely the effect O’Brien would be glad to inspire, considering what she appreciates from her own SoHE experience. The 1970 alumna, thinking on what advice she would give to current SoHE students, shared, “Appreciate SoHE’s curious community. Put yourself out there and get engaged. Develop your critical thinking and empathic learning skills. And just learn, learn, learn.”

O’Brien herself can attest to the power of the curiosity she says her family instilled in her initially and that SoHE refined and enhanced. A native of Rice Lake, Wisconsin, a town of just 7,500 people, she enjoyed her home economics journalism major, specializing in food and nutrition, whether in a biochemistry lab or a writing course.

After graduating, she directed the Chicago chapter of the National Organization of Women (NOW) for several years, advocating within the shifting gender politics of the 1970s before moving to corporate work. She worked for Chicago’s American Furniture Mart in the mid-70s, then joined the Actuarial, Benefit, and Compensation practice of Coopers and Lybrand, at the time one of “the big eight” accounting firms, now part of PricewaterhouseCoopers. In the early ‘80s, having moved to Lima, Ohio, she led the HR department of F&R Lazarus & Company, a department store chain that would later be bought by Macy’s.

Throughout these career moves, she observed the treatment and conduct of her fellow women in the workplace. Conversations with three of her colleagues led them to establish Women in Process, an independent consulting firm helping professional women with personal development and organization goals. Though she and her co-founders were all in different parts of the US, they came together four times a year to plan upcoming programming around their mission to “make the world a better place by creating organizations where people have meaningful work and can develop their full potential.” They consulted privately and held open, public sessions; they worked with individuals, companies, and nonprofits; and they pioneered an early online community around their objectives—a strategy that, in the 1990s, was well ahead of its time.

When O’Brien’s husband Richard Antoine, a UW chemical engineering grad, had a career opportunity in Kobe, Japan, they moved there for a number of years. It was there that O’Brien, ever the curious SoHE graduate, learned about and practiced mindfulness training and meditation. Upon returning to the US, and specifically to Cincinnati, she connected with various Asian-American communities there and helped to found both the Asian Community Alliance (still active today) and the Ohio Asian American Health Coalition.

Ultimately, she and her husband retired near Sarasota, Florida, where they support several local museums, and where O’Brien is a member of the League of Women Voters and the Women’s Donor Network (national).

SoHE and the University of Wisconsin at large have also benefited greatly from O’Brien’s influence. She served eight years on SoHE’s Board of Visitors, three of them as chair; she is a 100 Women honoree; and she gave initial funding to support SoHE’s Mind-Body and Family Wellbeing Initiative, which she followed up with a gift to support the Dorothy A. O’Brien Professorship in Human Ecology, currently held by Dr. Julie Poehlmann-Tynan in Human Development and Family Studies. She has been heavily involved with Women and Wellbeing in Wisconsin and the World (4W), including a campaign to address human trafficking, and she currently chairs WFAA’s Women’s Philanthropy Council

She is proud to be a SoHE alumna and remarks that she was (uncharacteristically) speechless when she learned she’d been selected for the Distinguished Alumni Award. “SoHE really lives up to its name, to thinking about and improving the lives of people in a holistic, ecological sense. It teaches not just its respective disciplines, but a whole approach to life that really makes a difference.”

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