When Irish Eyes are Smilin’

O'BrienThis week that the entire world becomes Irish, we once again post an old yarn about  one hell of a guy in Reno’s heritage. His name was Harry O’Brien, the Smilin’ Irishman who probably did as much for our town as any man alive did in the mid-20th Century
I’d hoped to have more photographs available but frankly I can’t find any other than a headshot and caption in my old standby-1960s “Men who Match Our Mountains” edition of Sierra Magazine. So, what follows is a bit of blarney about the hi-jinks that Harry organized around St. Patrick’s Day each year from 1960 through 1967, and once again in 1971

While yakking with a bunch of guys preparatory to going up to the Nevada Historical Society and digging up some stuff about Harry, one among us postulated that there are few of the Harry O’Briens around Reno, or Sparks, anymore…men who moved and shook, most of whom owned businesses and used a genuinely town-enhancing effort to promote their businesses. Sure, Harry wanted the world to know that he owned O’Brien’s Moving & Storage, but he put an incredible amount of himself – and of his own coin – into setting the bar for the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations that would follow

The parade started almost innocuously in 1960 – well-organized but thinly-attended, and not a terribly long parade. It snaked up Virginia Street, as I recall but not reliably, from the Sewell’s Market parking lot between Fourth and Fifth, southward to maybe Buddy Traynor’s Shell and Walker & Melarkey’s Flying A service stations on Liberty Street. It was a Thursday evening. And it didn’t take long for a few mounted groups, maybe the Nevada White Hats (I recall horses), a few bands, maybe the University ROTC band and I think a bagpipe band up from San Francisco that Harry had lassoed to help, a grand marshall who’s name I’d hoped to find but didn’t

It was vastly successful. The next year, the parade grew, and on a Friday night that year, more attended on the Virginia Street sidelines. And more participants showed up, seems like somewhere in here E Clampus Vitus showed up, emblematic of the Irish contribution to the Comstock (Julia Bulette Chapter was two years away from its inception). More bands, more horses, more pipers, a few more floats this year (several on Harry’s moving company flatbeds!) – a pleasant mix of legitimate Irish heritage and capricious fun. Some sang. A few had one, or even two, Irish Coffees, which SF Chron columnist Stanton Delaplane had introduced in America at the Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco only a few years before. The crowd sang. Some did the jig. Harry was underway

The slim news accounts of the occasion noted that the following year – 1962 – 28,000 souls, all Irish, not all from our valley, attended the parade. It was this year that Harry began another tradition: On the theory that it’s always easier to seek forgiveness than permission, Harry and his merry band of men journeyed downtown in the wee hours of March 17th and painted the usually-white stripe bisecting Virginia Street, Harrah’s and Harolds to the east, the Primadonna and Southworth’s Cigar Store to the west – a bright Kelly green. Hell was raised by the City Fathers on a tongue-in-cheek basis, as in “if you do that again in 1963, we’re going to be, well, really upset” (Harry would do it again every year ’til he died. Or see that it was done…)

Kudos arrived from many, not the least of which was, or were, from Eamon de Valera, president of the Republic of Ireland, and you don’t do much better than that in a St. Patrick’s Day celebration
The celebration continued through 1967; why it was terminated then I couldn’t say. In 1971, Harry once again resurrected the downtown parade, for that year only. I can find no record of parades in that interim or following 1971. I can write with authority that painting the stripe down the middle of Virginia Street continued on an apparent haphazard basis for many years until people quit going downtown, and my incredible research also reminds us that Harry did on numerous St. Patrick’s days also instigate the dyeing of our Truckee River’s silvery rills a bright Kelly green, and on a few sunny days the river indeed appeared to be a bright green from the Shore Room of the Holiday Hotel. As I recall this met with disdain of whoever operates rivers locally similar to the City Fathers’ objection to painting Virginia Street’s stripe. No fish were injured in this production

Those were the O’Brien years, and good ones they were. We salute Harry; actually I remember him fondly as a good man and a friend of my dad’s. Hell, he was everybody’s friend; he was a Mason and Shriner, I.O.O.F., Lions, Elks, the Coast Guard Auxilliary at Lake Tahoe, and chairman of the United Fund in 1966 and 1967
Now, the tough part of the story, and as it is with most Irish tales and ditties, the ending must be sad: On February 22 of the year 1974 Harry was eastbound toward his office on East Second Street when a forklift on a flatbed truck, traveling beside his car with the forks raised (unbeknownst to the machine’s operator), and the fork rail struck the new I-580 freeway overpass and fell into Harry’s car. The next morning’s Nevada State Journal would carry the headline in 120-point type, “O’Brien dies in forklift accident.” He was 59. By the way, should you encounter Brian Clary this weekend, tell him you read about his grandpa Harry…

Reno’s loss was immense – to paraphrase Irish poet William Butler Yeats, he changed us, changed endlessly; a terrible beauty was born. Harry, we’ll lift a glass to you on Tuesday, all over town – in spirit at the Raps and Corrigan’s and Ryan’s on Wells Avenue, at the Stein on Center, the Siamese Room on West First, (like those last two?!) wishfully at Noal Foley’s on South Virginia – and wherever else green is worn and Irishmen gather to speak of hale men and good days gone by

2007: Of Fords, ravioli and other unrelated matters

An observation here last Sunday brought a half-a-dozen e-mails – we noted downtown construction had exposed a sign on the back wall of Reno Furniture’s store on Virginia Street, a sign in an alley that had been obscured for many years – first by Ford dealer Richardson-Lovelock, then by a temporary building that was recently razed.Inez

            The e-mail comments fell in two directions – when was the sign ever visible from any thoroughfare? And, obviously from old-timers: Wasn’t Reno’s Ford dealer once in the Reno Furniture building? One-by-one we’ll reconstruct that central downtown block, and here I’m playing with relatively ancient phone books, Polk City Directories and Sanborn Fire maps, which tend to differ from each other by a year or two. (There’s one of the reasons that I don’t venture back prior to World War II often in these pages…)

            There are tracks toward a Ford dealership even before 1917 but fairly solid records of “Calavada Ford” operating in Reno, downtown in the 400 block of North Virginia Street. (I’ve written “Calavada” twice in the past and twice you read “Cal-Vada.” The former sold Fords, the latter Jeeps.) Calavada Ford operated in a building, brick, per the Sanborn map, that was a doorway south of Reno Furniture’s location at 432 N. Virginia. That dealership later moved to the corner of East Fourth and “University” Street, the present Center Street’s prewar name. In 1938 it was acquired by Richardson and Lovelock, and one of my old columns further describes those two fine guys. Reno Furniture’s alley sign that I wrote of was visible from 1940 until the dealership was significantly enlarged to the north, obscuring the sign (the block had been occupied by some stately single-family homes until 1955.) Rounding out the thought, Fred Bartlett bought the dealership in 1966, and Forest Lovelock joined veteran Reno auto dealer Pio Mastroianni.

            The Reno Furniture building at 432 N. Virginia Street originally housed Reno Grocery, a wholesale grocer to the trade – that building tracking to 1923 on a Sanborn map.

            Shifting gears slightly, I’ll scribe that while following a Citifare bus earlier this week, I noted a placard “80 years of Inez” over second line “70 years of the Halfway Club” with a photo of Mama herself alongside.

            “This demands to be chronicled,” I thought to myself and turned east on Highway 40 toward the Halfway Club to investigate further. Sources inside that legendary lair spun the tale of a beautiful bundle of joy arriving in St. Mary’s on Feb. 11th of 1927, being named Inez by her parents John and Elvira Casale and being taken home to the present Halfway Club building where she would live during her childhood. It was then indeed halfway between Reno and Sparks, a fur  piece from either, as it would remain until well into the 1950s.

            The Casales would open an Italian deli specializing in raviolis in 1935, and in 1937 reopen as a restaurant where the by-then world-famous raviolis were served to travelers on the Lincoln Highway. Ines married Steamboat Stempeck in 1946 and continued making the best raviolis in the world (and now I’ll probably hear from Bruno Selmi in Gerlach. Well, they’re both damn good!) [note to out-of-area readers added here: Bruno owns “Bruno’s” (natch) in Gerlach (pop. 9) , a long hour north of Reno in the Black Rock Desert, but an obligatory drive for visitors and revered by locals for great raviolis and Italian food. And yeah, he let me have it (laughingly) over that “best ravioli” thing.]

            Inez at 80 remains the popular grande dame of the local social and culinary landscape, still embracing the Halfway Club’s corporate mantra, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”    

            I know the Sunday readers join me in sending her our best. Have a good week; it’s OK to scream if you hear “Danny Boy” one more time, and God bless America.

Photo credit of Inez Stempeck by Guy Clifton, RGJ

March 22 2007