Cover photo for Tracy O'Brien's Obituary
Tracy O'Brien Profile Photo
1956 Tracy 2021

Tracy O'Brien

June 12, 1956 — September 28, 2021

“A positive attitude and a smile on my face go a long way.”

Tracy Don O’Brien lived by these words, and as a husband, father, grandpa, brother, son, friend, teacher, coach, and in countless other ways, he made a lasting impact on everyone he met.

As the youngest child, Tracy brought joy and humor to his five older siblings. He was welcomed into this world on June 12, 1956 by loving parents Don and Gladys (Warren). He grew up in the big red house at the end of Watson Street in Ripon, WI, where he later returned to raise his own children in the family home. Tracy loved the outdoors, the beauty of nature and most importantly, time with his family. His childhood was simple and adventurous: he climbed from tree to tree in Barlow Park, played pick-up games at Roosevelt School with the neighborhood friends, rode bikes to Princeton, walked to Spaulding’s Bridge for family picnics, hiked through his beloved South Woods, and went on day trips to sporting events in the family station wagon. Tracy participated in football, basketball, track and field and played his trombone (with a well-loved case donned in banana stickers) in the school band before graduating from Ripon High School in 1975. His childhood laid the foundation for the man he would become.

As a husband, father, and grandpa, Tracy was simply the best. There was nothing more important in Tracy’s life than embracing these roles. He married the love of his life, Sue Van Dinter, on September 25, 1982. They shared a beautiful love that felt effortless from the beginning. Tracy and Sue raised three children and later welcomed both a daughter- and son-in-law and three wonderful granddaughters. Through his creativity, artistic gifts and storytelling, “Dad” and “Grandpa Tracy” created long-lasting memories for them all. He painted character drawings on their bedroom walls, designed yearly scavenger hunts from the Easter Bunny, shared how to make the perfect s’more and grill R-Line hot dogs, crafted homemade costumes and hand-made signature Christmas cards. He guided the family on road trips to explore the beauty and history of the US at many national parks and landmarks. Tracy often learned even more about these places by striking up a conversation with anyone nearby. He had a passion for documenting special moments and has left his family with the gift of countless photos and videos to remember their time together.

As a teacher, Tracy was known to be one of a kind. After earning his degree at UW-Oshkosh, he returned to his hometown and began a 31-year career inspiring 2nd- and 4th-grade minds. His classroom was affectionately coined the “O’B Hive,” and his creativity fueled everything he taught. His former students recall fond memories of walks through South Woods, where Tracy taught them how to love and respect the nature around them. “Mr. O’B” had a strong interest in Wisconsin history, leading field trips across the state, encouraging his students to find historical landmarks with their own families and organizing the annual Lumberjack Day. Perhaps most notably, Tracy created and published “Math Facts as a Sport” -- a fun series of games to teach his students simple arithmetic. He took pride in his collection of fun neckties that he wore daily, his active commute to work, and the fact he never took a sick day in 31 years.

As a coach, Tracy inspired and encouraged confidence in hundreds of kids playing little league baseball, soccer, basketball, tennis, golf, and track and field. His love for teaching made him a natural mentor. After coaching, he remained committed to high school athletics by volunteering at track meets, keeping the book at basketball games, and assisting the golf team. Tracy loved all of Wisconsin’s sports teams and cheered them on loudly with his family.

As a retiree, Tracy remained active and focused on his passions. His commitment to education continued through substitute teaching. He helped revive the Ripon Historical Society, sitting on the board of directors and also serving as president. He was instrumental in elementary students touring the society each year and hosting monthly historical programs. He also began working at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia, a job that didn’t feel like work. It was the perfect opportunity for him to talk with and meet new people, and he got on the course whenever he could. Volunteering at professional golf events throughout Wisconsin was an exciting highlight of his summers. Tracy was admired for the pride he took in caring for his family home, taking detailed care of his lawn and meticulously decorating for Christmas. Tracy was honored with the RHS Distinguished Alumni Award and most recently the Tiger Staff Salute from the Ripon Education Foundation. Messages shared from hundreds of community members and former students are a testament to the number of lives he touched.

As a friend, Tracy positively influenced all those lucky to call him one. His natural ability to meet people and strike up a conversation led to countless lasting friendships. Tracy had a kind heart and was always willing to lend a helping hand and work quietly behind the scenes to assist others. He loved the small town atmosphere of Ripon and was known and respected by anyone he met. He was a friend to all.

On September 28, 2021 at the age of 65, Tracy’s four-year fight against cancer ended as he peacefully passed away in his family home of over sixty years. His final weeks were spent reminiscing with his family. Tracy is survived by his wife of 39 years, Sue; children Kevin, Brendan (Jordan), and Bridget (Sean) Dugenske; granddaughters Bronwyn, Sawyer, and Saoirse; mother-in-law Nancy Van Dinter; siblings Cody, Cindy (Tom) Bauer, and Kelly (Kim); brothers-in-law Brad McKendry, Delbert Keenlance, Joey Van Dinter, Jimmy Van Dinter; sister-in-law Audrey (Brian) Purdy, and many nieces and nephews. Tracy was preceded in death by his parents Don and Gladys, father-in-law Jim Van Dinter, sisters Peggy McKendry, Sherry Keenlance, and nephew Kyle O’Brien.

Tracy’s family extends a heartfelt thank you to the Ripon community for the outpouring of support, UW Carbone Cancer Center, Agnesian Cancer Center, Ripon Medical Center and Hospice Hope for providing compassionate care to Tracy. They also thank the UW School of Medicine for accepting the donation of his body to educate future healthcare professionals.

A Celebration of Life will be held at The Golf Courses of Lawsonia on Sunday, October 10, from Noon-4 PM, with a brief tribute to Tracy at 3:45. Out of respect for Tracy’s family and community, attendees are asked to wear a face covering if not fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

In lieu of flowers, a memorial fund will be established to support the causes that were important to Tracy.

Tracy often said, “Leave things as good as or better than the way you found them,” and there is no doubt he accomplished that.

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