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Elaine O’Brien, 58; youthful flight instructor turned Conn. lawmaker

Jim Capillo (left) was taught to fly by Elaine O’Brien when she was barely 20. She had earned a pilot’s license at 17.

Jim Capillo (left) was taught to fly by Elaine O’Brien when she was barely 20. She had earned a pilot’s license at 17.

Having decided to learn to fly, Jim Capillo walked into the Beverly Airport office one day in the mid-1970s and was greeted by Elaine O’Brien, the only person there. They chatted a bit and Ms. O’Brien — she was Elaine Corrigan then, and barely 20 — said she would book an introductory flight for the next day. When he returned, she was still the only soul in sight.

“She says, ‘Are you ready to go flying?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, who’s my instructor?’ And she says, ‘Me,’ ” he recalled. “I nearly passed out because here’s this little wisp of a girl, a few years younger than me.”

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In that era’s very male world of flying, Ms. O’Brien was accustomed to defying odds and redefining perceptions. She got a pilot’s license at 17, just a few months after learning to drive, and then became a flight instructor. Following a pattern she established as a girl in Somerville, she spent the rest of her life memorably helping and inspiring others, whether soaring in a plane or spending uncounted hours crafting policy, most recently as a Connecticut lawmaker.

A Democrat, Ms. O’Brien was elected to Connecticut’s 61st Assembly District.

“I have thousands of memories, but I think what I will always remember is she was always so upbeat,” said her mother, Helen Corrigan, who formerly served on the Somerville Board of Aldermen and chaired the city’s Democratic Committee. “Everything was positive with her, even when she was a little kid. When she was trying to do something, if it didn’t work out, she’d just go at it another way. She wasn’t a person who gave up.”

Ms. O’Brien, who spent her final conscious hours sipping white wine through a straw and working via an aide to keep advocating on behalf of constituents, died of a brain tumor Friday in Hebrew Health Care in West Hartford, Conn. She was 58 and was serving her second term as a Connecticut state representative for her town of Suffield.

“In all of our lives she was the best,” said her son John of New York City, who is the oldest of her three children. “She raised us from a really young age essentially on her own and was someone who still managed to do it all. It’s just impossible to understand how she did it all at once.”

John’s brother Tommy, who lives in Amherst, said when their parents’ marriage ended, “she had a right to complain, but she didn’t ruminate on it. I remember the lack of complaining.” Instead, she became “an active person in the community and she was always an excellent mother. I always knew she loved me and would accept me and would encourage me.”

That concern for the well-being of her three sons prompted Ms. O’Brien to volunteer with school organizations, and then enter politics by running for the Suffield Board of Education, on which she served about a dozen years.

Politics was already a family pursuit. Like her mother, Helen, Ms. O’Brien’s brother Jack has long been an activist in the Democratic Party and formerly was a top aide to Michael S. Dukakis.

Ms. O’Brien’s political involvement “had everything to do with her being a good citizen, caring about people,” said her brother, who lives in Brookline.

She was elected Suffield town clerk before running successfully in 2010 and 2012 as a Democrat in Connecticut’s 61st Assembly District, representing East Granby, Suffield, and Windsor.

“Elaine was a passionate legislator who dedicated much of her life to public service at the local and state levels, championing proposals to improve the health and safety of Connecticut citizens,” Governor Dannel P. Malloy said in a statement as he ordered that Connecticut flags be lowered to half-staff in her honor.

Elaine Catherine Corrigan was the oldest of five children born to John Corrigan and the former Helen Sampson of Somerville. Her father was a postal worker, her mother a travel agent and a secretary.

Her brother recalled that “when she was a kid, she was very irrepressible,” a trait that never really faded. When their father took them for a plane ride at Norwood’s airport, thinking it might inspire Jack to be a pilot, it was Ms. O’Brien who was smitten.

As a pilot, she would ferry family members to Provincetown or Maine.

“When we were flying, she would do things like take out her hairbrush and start brushing her hair and say, ‘Here you take the controls,’ ” her mother said with a chuckle.

“She thought it was very amusing to fly upside down, which was . . . well, it was an experience,” her brother said.

Ms. O’Brien progressed quickly through securing an instrument rating to becoming a teacher and was “a fantastic pilot and a fantastic instructor,” said Capillo, who lives in Gloucester.

She flew for a small regional carrier, her brother said, until her gender prevented her from keeping the job.

After marrying, she moved to Pennsylvania, where she graduated from Penn State University with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She later received a master’s in public administration from Westfield State College.

She took a couple of lower-level airline jobs when her marriage ended, before working in the Suffield town clerk’s office.

In 2010, she married Justin Donnelly of Suffield, Conn.

Her family said that in many ways, being elected state representative afforded Ms. O’Brien a public platform to do what she had always done as a volunteer and in the often challenging role of a school board member.

“You couldn’t count all the committees she remained on,” her son John said. “Every significant group in town wanted her. Anytime somebody needed someone who knew everyone and knew how to get things done, she was on it.”

Tommy added that their mother “had no interest in building a resume. She just wanted to help the community, and she wanted to be the best mom she could be for us. That’s what she cared about.”

In addition to her husband, two sons, brother, and parents, Ms. O’Brien leaves another son, Daniel of Suffield; two sisters, Norma Bohrer of Framingham and Joanne Corrigan of Medford; and another brother, Jim Corrigan of Waltham.

A memorial service will be held at 11:30 a.m. Saturday in Suffield High School in Suffield, Conn.

Diagnosed just before she was reelected in fall 2012, Ms. O’Brien went through three surgeries and a host of treatments, some of which brought her to Massachusetts General Hospital and the Boston area, where she spent time with her parents and siblings.

“There’s no other way to say it: We had a good time,” Jack said. “She knew what was going on, she knew the circumstances she was dealing with, but we had a lot of fun.”

She knew the course of the illness would allow her to “say goodbye to people and tell them she loved them,” Tommy said. “No matter what happened to her, no matter how unfair the situation was, she embraced life, and she got fulfillment through other people, by helping people.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.
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