In Memoriam: John O’Brien – 1969-2017

A Life of Service: USC Viterbi Remembers a Favorite Son

Professor John O’Brien, executive vice dean of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, hated two things: titles and vegetables. So, for the remainder of this story, he will be referred to simply as John — and there will be no mention of broccoli at all.

In his 20 years here, John won a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and an NSF Career Award. He was a senior member of IEEE and a fellow of the Optical Society of America. He graduated 19 Ph.D. students and personally developed several courses for USC Viterbi before joining the dean’s office in 2006. As humble as he was accomplished, he would likely be thoroughly embarrassed by this public celebration of his life.

Said USC Viterbi Dean Yannis C. Yortsos: “At USC, we have often used the term ‘transformative faculty’ to denote faculty with a significant impact. John epitomized the term. He defined it in its most real and impactful sense.”

Over the past decade, John O’Brien arguably did more to transform the collective culture of USC Viterbi than anyone else. But it would be wrong to assume that John was so loved because of what he accomplished for the school. In fact, the exact opposite is true: John accomplished so much because he was so loved.

“John was the bridge that brought many of us together. He created a unique balance and support structure,” said Kelly Goulis, senior associate dean for Graduate and Professional Programs, and John’s longtime friend.

“When John joined the administration, he was the recipient of many complaints,” said Hossein Hashemi, associate professor of electrical engineering. “If you haven’t been at a university, you don’t know how much faculty can complain. We complain about everything. From research labs, to intellectual property, to promotion opportunity, to lack of supporting staff and more.”

But John would patiently sit through all these complaints and give a polite, measured response, Hashemi said. And always with his trademark smile.

It was these qualities — his ability to genuinely listen, the deep respect he had for everyone’s work, his sense of humor — that brought him such success. Or, as Richard Roberts, chair of the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, said, “The sheer humanity of the man.”

If John’s humanity was the tool with which he accomplished so much, his commitment to service was what drove him. It allowed him to lead major initiatives that have shaped USC Viterbi. His steady leadership of the Information Sciences Institute over an interim period was critical to the future of USC’s crown jewel research institute. He also directed the rollout of the new nanofabrication facility, which will be named in his honor when it opens this November.

In a further celebration of his life, USC Viterbi has named the annual Faculty Service Award in John’s honor. The award, which John received posthumously this year, is given to a member of the faculty who best exemplifies the values he held so dear. The Min and Tayebi families, supporters of USC Viterbi, generously endowed the Faculty Service Award in John’s honor.

While John was a bridge to his colleagues, he was an inspiration to his students. “In the Ph.D. world, you see traits of advisers live on in students,” said Ashkan Seyedi, a former Ph.D. student. “I’m proud to say that he was my adviser. I try every day to exemplify those characteristics that would make John proud.”

“John was an outstanding researcher, educator, administrator and colleague,” Hashemi said. “But more importantly, he was a good man. Simply put, John was the best human being I got to know at USC. I dearly miss him.”

Goulis has struggled to comprehend what work will be like without her friend. At John’s memorial, she shared a story told to her by the mother of a USC student who recently passed away. The woman said, “When I’m sad, I imagine myself sitting in a beautiful garden. There I see a basket, filled with very small, beautifully wrapped presents. I see myself reaching for one of the presents, unwrapping it slowly, and inside is a beautiful memory.”

John has left Kelly, and all of us, with a very full basket of beautiful memories.