Rick Obrand is City Section sports historian and collector
With the grandeur of professional sports in Los Angeles casting a long shadow, memories of many high school athletic careers can fade into obscurity.
But in a room down the hall of Rick Obrand’s quaint Harbor City condo – a small corner office that was once a bedroom for his sons – those memories live on.
It is the work of a lifetime of Obrand, 74, a museum of treasures. Detailed reports of alumni from every school – across the United States and beyond – stacked a bookcase high up. Thousands of unpublished letters to Obrand from professional athletes writing about their high school years.
He would never sell any of it. The papers, the binders, the photographs – they all keep alive the memory of the athletes who, over the decades, have come to their local fields to support their community.
“I would really love to convey to district and state lawmakers how important preparation sports are in our cities, in our communities, in our hair salons, all that sort of thing,” says Bob Collins, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s former director of instruction. “I think that’s Rick’s legacy.”
About 15 years ago, Collins became interested in tracing the stories of prominent Los Angeles school graduates. Working with a committee of alumni, he was repeatedly referred to Obrand, which they described as a human encyclopedia.
When Collins started talking with Obrand, he was stunned. There was no name the man couldn’t trace back to a high school, with a list of their accomplishments there.
Years later, he’s still stunned. Collins recently spoke to Obrand, giving him a name he was sure Obrand wouldn’t know – Roger Wagner, a former choir musician. Obrand replied that Wagner was a decathlete in the 1919 Olympics who raced for France.
“What did I say? How do you know? ‘ Collins said. “He’s just a remarkable human being.”
However, the office archives do not receive many visitors. Obrand hardly ventures into the nooks and crannies of the room, bedridden for two months with sepsis. Going from your hospital bed at home to your wheelchair is a difficult task.
Doctors discovered a tumor the “size of a golf ball” on his kidney in March 2013. After being diagnosed with cancer, they told Obrand he had six months to live. Eight years later, he’s still here, and he’s never stopped his research.
“I’m kind of a fighter,” Obrand said. “I’m a calm guy, but I’m a fighter.”
Even confined to his bed, he will spout facts, his encyclopedic brain still in turmoil. What do actor Robert Redford, actress Natalie Wood and former Dodgers star pitcher Don Drysdale have in common? They all went to the same high school, Van Nuys, Obrand will tell you.
“I know he’s very, very sick,” Collins said, “but his mind is calm, phew! I’ll tell you.”
When Obrand was 9, his father dropped him off at the Helms Athletic Foundation in Los Angeles so he could copy their wealth of high school athletic records. Founder Bill Schroeder, who became Obrand’s second father, taught him to turn off the alarm system so he could burn midnight oil, scribbling information on pieces of paper in a folder that he had brought from home.
Obrand played basketball at Washington High. At halftime in his away games, he said, his coach would let him sneak into the trophy rooms so he could copy the information.
“I loved sports since I was a little kid,” Obrand said. “And I always thought, ‘It’s gonna be interesting, who went to which high school.'”
Obrand began teaching sixth grade at Carson Street Elementary School in his early twenties, a job he held for 40 years that earned him a dozen Teacher of the Year awards. Around the same time, he began writing to the athletes he was researching, asking them about their mentors and sources of inspiration in their youth.
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One of his favorites among the thousands of responses is that of the late John Arnett. Former Rams All-Pro running back wrote about fifth-grade teacher Janice McKeever telling him he can climb as high as he wants as long as he works hard enough.
“My second-grade teacher was Janice McKeever, too, at another school,” Obrand said, the corners of his mouth popping up. “She told me the same thing: you can do whatever you want as long as you work hard enough.”
While staying up until the early hours of the morning cataloging high schools across the country after hours of grading homework, Obrand eventually inherited much of the Helms Foundation’s collection after its disbandment in 2007, became a member of the Society of American Baseball Research and brought athletes such as former pitchers Don Newcombe and Dock Ellis to speak in his class.
Now his South Bay lawyer son David will work to preserve a collection of stories he hopes will stand the test of time.
“I hope Rick’s legacy is that we continue to push, showcase and respect athletics in this district and in every district,” said Collins.