Not many people would fly more than 1,500 miles for a two-hour interview with a reporter. Then again, there aren't many people who approach life like Robert "Robin" O'Brien.
The spur-of-the-moment trip fit O'Brien's track record as a tenacious go-getter. This veteran of the U.S. Army and former Delta Air Lines pilot has traveled the world. He drove his motorcycle from Atlanta to the Arctic Circle on the unpaved ALCAN Highway. He served in multiple church capacities from elders quorum president to temple sealer. And that is just the beginning of his list of accomplishments.
"I've had a very exciting life," he said, putting it mildly.
O'Brien's life has been rife with unique opportunities and achievements that have diversified his personality and strengthened his faith.
Born in 1938 in Arkansas, O'Brien began his adventurous feats early in life. By his early 20s, he had already worked as a gandy dancer for a railroad company and packed horses through Yellowstone Park each summer while living on a remote side of the lake.
Receiving his patriarchal blessing while attending Ricks College devloped O'Brien's testimony of the priesthood. The blessing quoted Doctrine and Covenants 89:21: "And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them."
"I thought, 'That's kind of cool. All that I have to do is keep the Word of Wisdom and I have a life insurance policy,’ ” O'Brien said.
O'Brien enlisted in the military in 1959 with the words of his blessing in the back of his mind. During his time in the military, he worked in a MASH unit, received a commission as an officer, served as a paratrooper, underwent flight training and flew more than 120 classified reconnaissance missions.
O'Brien's faith in patriarchal blessings flourished while preparing for deployment to Vietnam. He asked for a priesthood blessing from a man whom he had never met. In the blessing, the man quoted the same portion of the Doctrine and Covenants, promising him safety if he kept the commandments.
"It literally came to pass while I was in Vietnam," O'Brien said. "I had times when bullets passed within inches of me, and I was not harmed."
From that point on, O'Brien recognized his blessing as a guidepost in his life, directing him toward paths he may not have otherwise taken. This special witness gives him a unique perspective as he serves as a patriarch in the Atlanta Georgia Stake.
"It has made it far more meaningful to me, and I realize more the value of what it will be to the young," he said. "I'm now aware of what it's going to mean to them in their life."
O'Brien has spent his life beating the odds. He was one of more than a quarter of a million applicants to be commissioned as an officer. Instead of backing down, he took the chance and applied. Only about a fourth of his officer candidate class graduated, and he was part of the small handful selected for flight training. After leaving the military, O'Brien applied for a job as a pilot for Delta Air Lines during a time when 200 men would apply for one position. O'Brien once again conquered the statistics.
"This goes way beyond just sheer dumb luck," he said. "It's what you call divine intervention. Heavenly Father looked after me."
O'Brien and his wife, Julia, settled on a farm outside Atlanta to raise their nine children while he flew for Delta. Between taking their cow into town for show-and-tell at school and playing in the life-size teepee in their backyard, the O'Brien children inherited a love of adventure from their father.
"There was never a dull moment at our house," Julia O'Brien said.
O'Brien's already full life further grew in excitement during his 30 years as an airline pilot. He climbed several mountains throughout the world, including Mt. Elbrus in Russia and Mt. Whitney in California. He traveled around the world to sites such as the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China. He developed multiple hobbies, including riding motorcycles, restoring cars, scuba diving and skiing. Through it all, he served in multiple church capacities, including bishoprics, high councils and counselor in two temple presidencies.
"You can see where every aspect of his life was a prize for something else: there was an experience, a lesson learned, there was something to come out of it to provide and help him for his next calling or job or struggle or whatever he was going to do in his life," Julie Liles, his youngest daughter, said.
O'Brien's wife, Julia, has matched him stride for stride throughout his endeavors. When they took up firearms shooting, she outshot him every time. When they enrolled in fly-fishing school, she caught the first trout. When they raced sports cars, she brought home more trophies in the women's class than he ever did in the men's.
"Anything I take interest in, she does with me," O'Brien said. "She has the patience of Job."
Now more than ever, his children are the pride and joy of his life. His children now live all across the country and are pursuing a variety of passions from making handcrafted guitars to private investigation. With 18 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, O'Brien enjoys telling stories about their many activities and accomplishments.
Robin and Julia O'Brien have sold their race cars and motorcycles and transitioned into a slightly quieter portion of their lives. "I'm more domesticated I might say," he said.
As O'Brien fulfills his capacity as patriarch, he and Julia continue to serve in the Atlanta Temple and often reflect on the opportunities life has afforded them.1 comment on this story
"I tear up at that because I feel like we have enjoyed so many blessings that seem to have fallen into place when there seemed to be no way," Julia said.
It is the lessons learned that endure.
"I've had an exciting trip through mortality," O'Brien said, "but all of that pales in comparison to the gospel and the spiritual experiences I've had."