by Jeff Dillon
In the midst of national mourning for the Christchurch mosque shooting victims, the Dunedin Catholic community was stunned by the sudden death of the much respected Kavanagh College principal, Tracy O’Brien, 54, in Dunedin on March 19.
Mr O’Brien had been principal at Kavanagh since 2010 and at Cullinane College in Whanganui (where he was foundation principal) for eight years prior to that as well as acting principal at Hato Petera College in Auckland for a year before that. Fourteen years of teaching history and economics preceded his move into those leadership roles.
With nearly 20 years in high pressure positions as principal, he had made the decision in October last year to resign at the end of the second term in 2019 to give Kavanagh College time to consider and appoint a replacement. His intention was to spend more time with family and have time to research his own family heritage.
Despite a few minor health matters in recent times, his sudden death was totally unexpected and produced grief in the college community already experiencing the shock and horror of the Christchurch events. Even though he was on sick leave after a recent ear operation, Mr O’Brien had led the school’s hour-long special service for the Christchurch victims on March 18.
On the afternoon of March 21, the college gymnasium accommodated an estimated 1200 mourners (750 of them students) who gathered to pay their respects at a memorial Mass celebrated by Bishop Michael Dooley.
In an opening tribute, deputy principal Steve Read said that “a Totara has fallen in the forest of Tane”. He noted that Mr O’Brien would have been humbled by the presence of so many at the Mass that day.
Representatives were in attendance from other Dunedin schools, the New Zealand Catholic Education office, the Ministry of Education, politicians, as well as parents and former pupils.
Mr O’Brien’s quick wit and caring and empathetic nature were qualities which endeared him to many.
“Tracy had a passion for a Gospel-, value-based Catholic education. This was closely followed by a focus on his
family,” Mr Read said.
Rebecca Meikle, a member of the board of trustees, spoke of Mr O’Brien’s “wairua” and his passion for giving all students a fair deal. He aimed to protect all members of the Kavanagh family.
Former pupil Timothy O’Farrell also spoke about how Mr O’Brien took an interest in how former students were faring in life after school. He listened to pupils and former
pupils in all situations.
In his homily, Bishop Dooley said that, on the Monday,
Mr O’Brien had shown spiritual leadership in taking the
special assembly, little realising that people would be praying for him within 24 hours.
He noted that Mr O’Brien’s role as principal was pivotal in the school and “Tracy was very aware of that. He exercised that responsibility with compassion and fairness”.
Bishop Dooley mentioned that he had been involved with the principal for several years when he was chaplain at Kavanagh College.
He noted that Mr O’Brien’s motivation for taking respect and fairness seriously came from the Gospels. Those values had been instilled in him through his upbringing, his
whanau, and all those with whom he worked over the
“His role model was very much Jesus Christ”.
Bishop Dooley acknowledged that, by his contact with Mr O’Brien, he had been inspired to think more deeply about his own role and what values were important to him.
He observed that Mr O’Brien had been very keen on the concept of gathering together around a table and sharing the breaking of bread together. The Eucharist was important in that process of creating that bond.
For Mr O’Brien, it was important to follow the command “Love one another”.
Following Communion, members of the college First XV performed an emotion-charged haka.
At that stage that day Mr O’Brien’s body was being flown to the Wairaka Marae in Whakatane, where his tangi was to be held on the Saturday.
His involvement in the education sector included membership or leadership roles with the Otago Secondary Principals Association, the Dunedin Secondary Partnership Board and the Secondary Principals’
Association of New Zealand (Spanz).