For many Americans, the death of Hugh O’Brian at age 91 might rate a brief mention for his portrayal of Wyatt Earp in the TV blockbuster Western in the late 50’s and early 60’s (or his military record as the youngest drill instructor in US Marines' history at 17). As a little boy, I watched “Wyatt Earp” faithfully, but Hugh O’Brian was far more than a Hollywood actor to me.
In 1971, I was one of 60 high school sophomores (one from each of the 50 states and 10 from foreign countries) who were selected by their states to spend ten days at Cape Kennedy Space Center to get inside education about the space program, meet with Senators, Congressmen, and high ranking military officials, and to sit beside astronauts during training. It was in the early days of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation. Later, it would become better known as HOBY (Hugh O’Brian Youth), and the format was changed from only 60 students each year at one location to become hundreds of students at multiple locations.
In the early days, being selected for the Foundation seminar meant an all-expenses-paid trip to Cape Kennedy. When I was selected, I had never flown on a plane (I’ve since made up for THAT!) and didn’t even have a suitcase or any luggage to take my things. My family didn’t take vacations and had no need of luggage and suitcases. I was about as excited at getting to fly in a plane and owning a suitcase for the first time in my life as for anything else. But the time in Florida, watching our astronauts and getting to go on the platform to personally view a Saturn Five rocket on the pad was amazing.
Hugh O’Brian had been challenged by Albert Schweitzer to take his celebrity and do something great for others, and he created and was personally involved in every aspect of the launch and direction of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Foundation. Though all expenses were paid, Hugh had one requirement for those of us who attended. We were to write him a letter on our birthday each year until we were thirty. I faithfully did that.
Later, he would honor me with his Distinguished Alumni Award at a ceremony in New York. I was Governor by then, and the influences of Hugh O’Brian and the seminar were profound.
Today, two of the true giants of influence in my life when I was a teenager have passed away on the same day—Phyllis Schlafly at the age of 92, and Hugh O’Brian at the age of 91. I’m saddened by their deaths, but forever indebted for how they shaped and changed my life.