John Michael O’Brien, 69, died Thursday, April 11, 2019. Standing at 6-foot-5 and blessed with the “O’Brien talking gene,” he was a larger-than-life presence among his family and friends. John loved to tell stories, to invent and create, and to pursue his multiple collections and hobbies. A big kid himself, he had a special place in his heart for children and was a neighborhood favorite, a spectacular youth sports coach, and most of all an extremely proud father and grandfather.
John was born Nov. 1, 1949, in Billings, to Jim and Joan (Haiston) O’Brien. He graduated from Billings Senior High, where he was a varsity basketball center and part of the state championship team in 1967. After graduating in 1968, he attended the University of Iowa and continued his basketball career with the Hawkeyes. He met Peggy Molback during a dance their freshman year. He brought her home to meet his slightly skeptical parents the following summer and proposed on July 20, 1969 — the date of the first moon landing. They were married on Jan. 2, 1970, in Iowa City.
John and Peggy moved to Billings in 1973, where they raised three daughters. John worked as a contractor and engineer before taking over ownership of Grand Fence Company from his father in 1981. He had realized the need for computerization in the fence industry, and so, shortly after buying that company, he also founded Software Design Associates. The code he wrote (on an Apple IIe) was the first program of its kind, and the company remains the leader in the industry to this day.
John sold both his businesses in 2003 to spend more time with his grandkids — and with his hobbies. Among other things, he played golf and basketball, wrote software for fun, undertook huge landscaping projects, explored the Montana wilderness in his Jeep, worked on his pinball machines, and collected train memorabilia. He also loved cards, and John and Peggy almost never missed their Friday-night date with longtime friends to play pinochle.
John is survived by his wife, Peggy; his daughters and their husbands, Julie and M.H. Van Keuren, Jennifer and Ivan Jasper; and Christine and Christian Brittle; seven grandchildren, Dexter, Michael, David, Yulena, Kaitlyn, Zachary and Connor; three sisters, Teresa (William) McCombs of Wichita, Kansas, Barbara (Corey) King of Snohomish, Washington, and Kathleen O’Brien of Portland, Oregon; brother- and sister-in-law Gary and Peggy Molback of Iowa City; many nieces and nephews; and the members of his card-playing group, Frank and Trudy Carey and John and Linda Palmer.
Services will be at 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, at First United Methodist Church, 2800 Fourth Ave. N., with a reception to follow at the church. Brian Hunter will officiate. Please send any memorial donations to the Montana Rescue Mission or the Junior Women’s Club.