Patrick Joseph O'Brien is a Master Gardener at El Paso Municipal Rose Garden. Born in Chicago, he made El Paso his second home and a home for his children.
Read our interview with Patrick O'Brien, where he tells us about his life experiences and work at the Municipal Rose Garden of El Paso.
- Patrick, tell me about your family and the place where you were born.
- I was born in Chicago, and most of my relatives still lives there. My family is of Irish origin. O'Brien is an Irish last name. We descend from Brian Boru. He was the High King of Ireland who created his own army and drove the vikings out of Ireland. Brian Boru is actually Irish for “praise to Brian”. My family name O'Brien means “Of Brian”. All the eldest sons in our family were named Patrick O'Brien, including me.
- Did you go to school?
- Yes, I went to Catholic school. In Chicago Catholic schools taught you discipline, and you need discipline when you grow up in that city. They also had better education and sports programs.
But I started working early as a teenager because we had a large family. I have 7 brothers. So in the morning before school we delivered papers – my brother Johnny and I.
When I was 14, there was a job opening at a big cookie factory to load trucks. But you had to be 16 to get the job. So my aunt fixed my birth certificate. I started working there, went to school, and I also played some sports, like football and wrestling.
Then I worked for the Chicago Tribune, delivering papers as a guy at the back of the truck who had to throw them. Once I became 18, or actually 16, I got a job working at night on the printing presses. So I worked as a junior pressman when I was at high school.
Then I went to three years of college. My brother had already went to Vietnam and came back. He told me that I had to go to Vietnam too. It was because my dad and two uncles had gone to WWII before. So it was a tradition that all men were in service. I quit school and joined the army too. But there they told me: “You're smart”. So they sent me to a language school in El Paso.
- Was it how you got here?
- Yes, after my basic training, I came here. I was stationed at Biggs Field. They had a Vietnamese language school here where I spent one year. After that I went to a radio school for 3 months in Saint Angelo.
- So, do you know Vietnamese?
- I knew it, but I haven't used it since the war. After the language school I was sent to Vietnam. Then I was stationed at a national security agency at Fort Meade for a year and a half. And then when I got out I came back to El Paso, because my wife was from here. I had gotten married when I was in service in El Paso.
We stayed here for about 3 years, but we didn't like it because there was no money. So we moved back to Chicago. We spent about 5 years there, but it was a lot of stress for my wife because Chicago is a big city. There are different neighborhoods there, and it is not as warm as in El Paso. Sometimes you go to a new neighborhood, and people may not accept you.
So we returned to El Paso, and I got a job at Fort Bliss, first working at a commissary, and then working in finance. After that I worked at a post office as a mailman.
- How many children do you have?
- Well, I have 4 kids now, but one died at birth, and my daughter died when she was 12. That happened when we lived in Chicago, and that put a lot more stress on my wife.
So now I have 4 children and 6 grandchildren. I was married to my wife for 40 years and then she died about 3 years ago. After that I retired.
- How did you start working at the Rose Garden?
- I was walking down the street one time, and I saw a guy bringing cokes and bottles into the Garden Center. So I gave him a hand with that. He noticed my Chicago Bears cap and we started talking. He told me about Domestic Gardeners and that I should take a course. So I decided to try it.
- Oh, do they have a course?
- Yes, they have a course for Mater Gardeners. I think it's $150. It lasts about 7-8 weeks, and they teach you everything about growing plants and vegetables, watering, gardening and taking care of the soil.
After you take the course, they give you a test. If you pass the test you have to volunteer for 60 hours to work in the gardens. There are different gardens you have to work in. After you do your 60 hours, you become a Master Gardener. And you don't stop learning after that – they always teach you as you go along.
- What other gardens do they have in El Paso?
- We have a Desert Garden with natural desert plants and a Vegetable Garden with a little fruit orchard. Every Saturday we sell a lot of vegetables from the Vegetable Garden at the farmer's market, at Ardovino's, New Mexico.
- How many roses do they actually have in the Rose Garden?
- It's about 300-350 kinds of roses and 1600 bushes.
- What is your favorite rose?
- Saint Patrick's rose. It's a green rose, which is very rare. It turns yellow too.
- Teach me something about roses that I don't know.
- What I learned when I started working with roses was how to prune them properly. First of all, if it is a Flora Bunda, which means that flowers come in a bundle, you have to cut the whole bundle when it gets old. Also always cut between the bud with three leaves and the bud with five leaves. If you cut above the three-leaf bud, all it will do is grow into green leaves. But the five leaflets or seven leaflets will grow into a flower. And when it starts to die you should cut it right away.
We do what is called “major pruning” every year. We do that in winter to make roses go dormant so that they can go back in spring with more flowers. We did not cut the roses down as far as we usually do this year because when you cut them down too much they have big flowers, but not as many. So we cut them down half of what we usually do. Now we get more flowers that come back faster but they are not as big.
- Are there any roses that don't need much care and can grow in the sun?
- Yes, they are called earth-kind roses. You just plant them and don't even need to fertilize them. I call them knock-out roses – they take care of themselves.
- What is your schedule here, at the Rose Garden?
- I come at 8 in the morning and work till 11 on work days. On weekends I work only 2 hours.
- Do many people come to the Rose Garden?
- Yes, quite a few. Some people come by to jog around or walk. As a matter of fact a day-care class came here recently. It was about 35 kids. And they were all excited and loved this place. Two little girls came back today and brought their moms with them.
There also was a girl who came here once and said that she'd always lived here but never knew about this place. So she brought her mom with her. Then the next time she brought her kids. And later she brought her grandmother. This place is so beautiful but no body knows about it.
- Do you enjoy living in El Paso?
- Yes, I like the people here. They are very friendly. And I don't like cold. That is why I don't go back to Chicago very often.
- Why do you like working at the Rose Garden?
- You know, I didn't know anything about roses. I didn't care about roses before. When they started teaching me about roses, I learned a lot. Besides, it is very relaxing. Even my kids say that I used to be very pushy and aggressive. But since I started working in Rose Garden, things don't bother me any more. If you just walk in the garden for 15 minutes every day, you won't have any problems.
- Knowing you now, I can't believe that you used to be aggressive before.
- Yes, I was that way. Even when I was an interpreter, Vietnamese people would give the interpreters Vietnamese names, and the names would be based on their first impression about the person. My name was “Anh Back” which in Vietnamese means “to force” or “to coerce”. So their first impression of me was that I like to “force” other people to do things my way.
I was always insisting on doing things my way. But sometimes you don't have to tell people what to do or worry about it. I used to drink more and I was always getting into fights. But not now.
My son would get mad at me because I used to kick the dogs we have in the house away from me. But now I love the dogs. So he was the one who told me: “You're mellow now”. Well, I tell him: “It's not me, the dogs changed”.
So if you ask me: “What do you love about roses”, I'll tell you that I love the effect that they have on me. I talk to them sometimes, and they respond by having bigger flowers. I've got nothing to prove with the roses. I don't have to impress them. They know I love them. It's a good feeling.