flag image

It's been a great life

"Ginks" O'Brien and his wife, Eleanor, have been married for 66 years.

August 21, 2014
The story begins with the name. He never liked Eugene and his dad was called Gene, so that wouldn't work. The nickname "Genks" became "Ginks." And it stuck for his 92 years so far.

Ginks O'Brien is a proud City of Grosse Pointe resident. He met his wife here - they were both graduates of "The High," while his three children and seven grandchildren also went through the Grosse Pointe public schools.

He's happily married to his wife, Eleanor, for 66 years.

The secret, he said is to say "yes" and to have fun.

"We've always had fun," he said. "We don't fight. There's nothing to fight about. We were in love and had a hell of a lot of fun."

Fun is a theme for O'Brien, who grew up in Detroit's Indian Village, one of three children. His parents were divorced in a time where it wasn't common, but he said his mother couldn't resist the drummer of a fancy band.

"She ran off with him," O'Brien said. Took my oldest sister and go into show business on Broadway. My mother was a great musician."

His father was in the insurance business, which is where O'Brien ended up, retiring in 1986. But it was exciting getting there.

O'Brien was born in a house on Neff, the second house above Kercheval.

His childhood was spent at the Detroit Boat Club, where swimming, sailing and rowing were a way of life.

O'Brien said he's more of a sailor than rower, but he's a part of rowing history.

In 1939, an amateur national event was held at the club and from it came Michigan's first high school crew.

"There were a bunch of us who belonged to the club and were students at Grosse Pointe High," O'Brien said. "We finished second at Nationals that year.

In 1940, a practice run from the Detroit Yacht Club to the Detroit Boat Club caught the eye of a coach that kept the group together.

"We won nationals that year, which were the Olympic trials," O'Brien said. "We qualified for the Olympics, but they were cancelled because of the war."

While the Olympics were cancelled, O'Brien traveled to New York with his teammates where they received Olympic gear. It would be a quick career of rowing.

"Like everything else, we had fun. We didn't take things too seriously," O'Brien said. "People treated us like we won the Olympic gold. But we never got to go."

The boating and sailing would continue after his next commitment, to serve his country in World War II.

"I started with the Navy ROTC at the University of Michigan," O'Brien said. After a couple years there, my brother joined the U.S. Army Air Force, got his wings and was assigned to a bomber squadron. He was killed during a training accident. I figured I would be a pilot.

"I applied from the floating to the flying Navy.

As a cadet, the U.S. Marine Corps recruited the top 10 percent. O'Brien was asked to join the Marines.

"I said 'yes,' took my commission in the Marine Corps and spent time flying transport planes in the combat areas of the Pacific," O'Brien said. "I flew in supplies and helped evacuate the wounded. It doesn't sound right, but I had fun serving my country. We made everything a challenge and fun."

After the war, O'Brien said he knew he wanted to return home. He went back to the University of Michigan, but said he struggled with being a few years older than the other students.

"I was going to be an engineer, but I was older and wiser. I wasn't smart enough to be an engineer," O'Brien said.

He attended an insurance company school in Philadelphia and then returned home as one of the "smartest insurance men in the world," O'Brien said with a laugh.

After spending some times with a couple Detroit area companies, he took over his father's agency.

It was also time to get married, Eleanor and Ginks married at Grosse Pointe Memorial Church.

"We're still members there, our three children were baptized there and Grosse Pointe has always been our home."

The O'Briens had two sons and a daughter. One son died about 10 years ago. The O'Brien families live in the Grosse Pointes "because there's no place better. This is a great place to live"

The Detroit Boat Club Crew, celebrating 175 years with events Aug. 22-24, remains close to the O'Brien family.

"It's meant so much to me to be part of the club for so many years," O'Brien said. "I would love to see it grow and be what it once was. There are great people there. It's just a great place."

O'Brien will be honored at the anniversary banquet at the Atheneum Hotel Friday, Aug. 22.

Christine Taylor of the U.S. Olympic Committee will honor the club's milestone and the 1940 Olympic rowing team. O'Brien is the last surviving member of that team.

"A lot of my friends are gone, but I've been blessed," he said. "I thank God I've had a lot of luck along the way. I always worked for myself, so I never had to work hard. I enjoyed being with my family. We've traveled and enjoyed our lives. It's been good."

Eleanor, heading off to the store, shared the secret of 66 years of marriage.

"You have to be happy," she said. "It really has been 66 years of wedded bliss."

Who wouldn't love that?

More information about the Detroit Boat Club Crew 175th anniversary celebration this weekend can be found at detroitboatclubcrew.com.

To nominate a Pointer of Interest, e-mail information to jwarner@grossepointenews.com.

To read the rest of the story, log in or subscribe to the Grosse Pointe News >>

Family Center Ask the Experts 1
Jaguar Landrover 2
Fresh Farms-3
Capricious Left
Ed Rinke Right