When former Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti sought to de-emphasize the place of athletics in the early 1980s, Shannon O’Brien ’81 and her teammates on the women’s soccer team got angry.
“We were offended in the locker room,” said Julia Jonathan ’80, who captained the Yale women’s soccer team during O’Brien’s junior year. “Shannon was the spokesperson who said women athletes had a higher GPA during their season than during the rest of the time.”
Later, in the spring of 1980, when the women’s soccer team elected a captain for the upcoming season, there was no question as to who deserved the title, Jonathan said.
Twenty years later, O’Brien, the Massachusetts’ state treasurer, is running for governor in one of the tightest and most closely watched races nationwide. And while the 43-year-old Democrat was never politically active at Yale, her teammates and classmates describe her as a student who developed her political skills in other ways.
“She was not highly into politics, but she had a political mind,” Jonathan said. “She was good at stepping forward and willing to be the person who spoke up. She did that naturally.”
A support player turned captain
O’Brien was not a player who scored many goals, Jonathan said. Instead, her role as a midfielder was to feed the ball to her teammates.
In a sense, this role was fitting for an athlete whose importance on the team was as much defined by her interactions with other players as with her own performance on the field, said Merrill Weyerhaeuser ’82, who captained the team the season after O’Brien graduated.
“She wasn’t one of the strongest athletes, nor did she have the best game sense,” Weyerhaeuser said. “It was by her personality that she was elected captain.”
At a time when women’s soccer was still in its early years as a varsity sport, the captain’s responsibilities included many of those now accorded to an assistant coach, Weyerhaeuser said. If elected Tuesday in her battle against Republican Mitt Romney, O’Brien would break another gender barrier, becoming the first elected female governor of Massachusetts.
In addition to leading the Bulldogs on the field during her Yale years, O’Brien helped with recruiting, organizing team breakfasts, and ensuring cohesion among a team that went 4-8-2 under her lead.
But while Weyerhaeuser and Jonathan said O’Brien had the attributes of a good captain, they both described her as more restrained than the average politician.
O’Brien was well-suited to serve as captain because she was emotional without being “out of control,” Jonathan said. Instead, she translated her skills as a support player into the role of captain.
“She was such an obvious choice for captain, but never really acted like she was the crown prince,” Jonathan said.
“In my mind, she was really soft-spoken and a leader by example,” Weyerhaeuser said. “I didn’t see her as someone who would put herself into the limelight.”
The consummate Yalie
Because of her background and her athletic talents, O’Brien seemed to be in her element at Yale, said Lauri Semarne ’81, one of O’Brien’s classmates in Berkeley College.
“She was — the kind of person you feel should be at Yale,” Semarne said. “I think she was definitely enjoying her years there.”
Naomi Rutenberg ’81, O’Brien’s three-year roommate, said the gubernatorial hopeful juggled many roles at Yale, actively pursuing her studies, her athletic career and a busy social life.
“She wasn’t a ‘goody two shoes’ by any means,” Rutenberg said. “But she was the most balanced one [in our suite] — the least angst, the least crises.”
Yet while O’Brien had some friends who cut across social lines, Rutenberg said, the American studies major tended to associate with classmates of a similar background, including other athletes.
“When I think of her, I think of people who came from New England prep schools,” Rutenberg said. “She was definitely in that clique — solid students but not burning intellectuals.”
O’Brien attended the Williston Northampton School — a boarding school in western Massachusetts — although Rutenberg said O’Brien came from a less privileged background than many of her friends. Among O’Brien’s social set, few people seemed interested in public service and instead pursued careers in business or law.
“It seemed as though their paths would be somewhat paved by their family background or connections,” Rutenberg said.
Politically interested, but not politically active
The daughter of a Yalie, O’Brien grew up in a politically active family that was prominent in western Massachusetts. Her father, Edward O’Brien ’54, has served as an elected representative on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council for over 20 years, and her brother, grandfather and great-grandfather have all held political office.
However, while O’Brien’s childhood was steeped in local politics, Rutenberg said O’Brien’s background did not translate into significant political activism at Yale.
“It was very clearly an interest of hers and something that ran in the family,” Rutenberg said. “She was interested in politics, but I don’t remember her being involved in politics.”
During O’Brien’s freshman year, employees in Yale’s dining halls went on strike. Yet while many students supported the workers’ decision, most students, like O’Brien, did not actively speak out for either side in the struggle, said Joanne Brandwood ’81, who lived near O’Brien in Bingham Hall during their freshman year.
“People were generally sympathetic to liberal causes, but they didn’t get off their duff and do anything about it,” Brandwood said.
O’Brien’s true start in politics came after she left college: Only one year after graduating from Boston University Law School, the former soccer captain ran for a seat in the Massachusetts state legislature. O’Brien went on to serve four terms as a state legislator and her current term as state treasurer.
Wendy Yellin-Hill ’81, a former teammate and close friend of O’Brien, said the Democratic candidate’s family influenced her political interests, which were always oriented towards Massachusetts rather than the issues that dominated New Haven politics.
“I think it’s her calling,” Yellin-Hill said. “Some people want to be doctors — she wanted to serve the people of Massachusetts.”
While O’Brien has quickly risen through the ranks of Massachusetts politics, Semarne said she never expected O’Brien to be the type of student who would seek elected office.
“When I found out she was in politics, it wasn’t a shock because she was at Yale, but it wasn’t something I knew she did,” Semarne said. “It wasn’t like you said ‘She’s going to go far and be a politician.'”