Bayville author pays tribute to her father

Posted:  Saturday, July 15, 2017 - 8:45am
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Bayville author Julia O’Brien-Merrill will release her first book “Charlie on the M.T.A., did he ever return?” on Wednesday, July 26. It will be found on the shelves in the children’s section, but is a condensed and illustrated version of a much greater backstory. It is the story of her father.

Walter A. O’Brien Jr. (1914-1998) began his life in Portland and retired as a used bookstore owner in Cundys Harbor.

But for a few years in the late ’40s, O’Brien was a labor organizer and a large figure in progressive politics in Boston. His daughter Julia was born in 1950.

“Fight the fare increase, vote for George O'Brien! Get poor Charlie off the MTA!”  went the lyrics to the hit folk song made popular by the Kingston Trio in the 1960s. In fact, songwriters Bess Lomax Hawes and Jackie Steiner wrote and performed the song with Walter O’Brien’s name, only to be changed a decade later by the Kingston Trio either for artistic or political reasons.

O’Brien was in the middle of a heated race for mayor of Boston fighting an uphill battle as the candidate of the Progressive Party.

Central to his platform, O’Brien had opposed a five cent fare increase levied on passengers as they went from the underground portion of the subway to the above ground trolleys. Unable to pay the extra nickel, the fictional poor Charlie was forced to remain riding underground “forever” with his wife handing him a sandwich, not a nickel, as the train came rumbling through.

The song was recorded by Hawes and Steiner and other radical progressive songwriters under the name of the Boston People’s Artists. The group wrote other songs for O’Brien and had a truck with speakers that carried O’Brien’s message to Boston voters, O’Brien-Merrill recalled.

On Election Day. incumbent James Michael Curley won in a landslide with O’Brien receiving little more than one percent of the vote.

In an extensive online article, historians Peter Dreier and Jim Vrabel detail how O’Brien became the victim of the communist witch hunt of the 1950s that ended O’Brien’s political career and eventually forced the family back to Maine.

“They were caught up in the Red Scare,” O’Brien-Merrill said in an interview at her family’s Bayville cottage.

Although O’Brien avoided public attention on the family’s return to Maine, he was a pack rat of documentation of his political years, which included an unsuccessful run for Congress. “He saved everything.”

Upon his death, Julia became the custodian of boxes of memorabilia. She was able to donate several boxes to the Maine Historical Society. The documents are being held at the Brown Research Library in Portland. 

O’Brien-Merrill started work on her book in 2009 and spent extensive time in search of an enthusiastic publisher.

“I wanted a Boston-based publisher,” she said. She found interest from Applewood Books based in Carlisle, Massachusetts. They matched her with artist Caitlin Marquis, who was new to book illustration. O’Brien-Merrill was pleased with Marquis’s illustrations, which included watercolor views of Boston’s historical buildings at the same subway stops “Charlie” passed in his endless trips through Boston’s underground tunnels.

“She has captured Boston amazingly,” O’Brien-Merrill said.

As for the song, it has been recorded by many singers with many changes of lyrics to fit different occasions.

In 2004, the MBTA dubbed its new electric fare card, “Charlie’s Card,” according to the Dreier-Vrabel account.

O’Brien-Merrill became a school teacher, including 15 years in the Brunswick school system. She plays violin in the  Midcoast Symphony Orchestra. She and her husband Dave are building a house in Newcastle.

A book-signing party is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 16 at Frontier Cafe in Brunswick and will feature the String Tides band who will play “Charlie’s”  song. A reading has been tentatively scheduled during Family Harvest Days at Boothbay Railway Village, Sept. 30-Oct. 1.

“Charlie is everyman,” said O’Brien-Merrill. “Keeping the story alive is my goal.”