Dean Owen O'Brien, a longtime North Highlands activist who served on boards of local fire districts, died Friday of ulcerative colitis, his family said. He was 79.
Mr. O'Brien was a fixture in North Highlands groups and events for more than 50 years. He settled in the community in 1955 while stationed at McClellan Air Force Base. He retired from the Air Force as an electronics superintendent in 1971 and taught electronics at American River College until 1993.
With his wife, Merrie, he helped organize and lead grass-roots effort to improve and celebrate life in North Highlands. He served on local advisory committees and belonged to the North Highlands Visions Task Force, which his wife co-founded after McClellan closed.
He compiled hundreds of newspaper stories about North Highlands that were written by his wife, a local columnist, into a book. He also researched and published his family genealogy.
"He was in touch with people all over the United States," said his son Kerry. "He shared information with them about people and families here."
Mr. O'Brien donated his electrical engineering skills to build floats and set up PA systems for the annual Moonwalk Parade, a hugely popular North Highlands event commemorating the U.S. moon landing in 1969. He belonged to Zion Lutheran Church and delivered meals as a volunteer driver for Serve Our Seniors.
Mr. O'Brien served for about 25 years on local fire district boards. He was first elected to the North Highlands Fire District in 1974 and joined the Citrus Heights Fire District in 1985.
Following a wave of consolidations among fire agencies, he became a member of the Sacramento County Fire Protection District board in 1989.
He served as president and supported efforts to merge with the American River Fire District, which led to creation of the present Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District in 2000.
Born in 1932 in Mason City, Iowa, Mr. O'Brien grew up on a farm during the Great Depression. He enlisted in the Air Force after high school and married Dorothy Merrie Peterson in 1953.
They put down roots and raised five children in North Highlands. The couple were together until Merrie O'Brien died in 2007.
Devoted to family, he inspired three of his sons to pursue careers in engineering or electronics.
He supported his wife's political career, which included winning board seats in the Grant Joint Union High School District and Rio Linda Union School District.
"We were always involved as kids, going out to put up signs and hand out fliers," his son said.