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Corps of Engineers' Grand Haven chief to retire after 40 years

Alexander Sinn • Aug 29, 2018 at 9:00 AM

After nearly 40 years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tom O’Bryan is retiring from a career of keeping Lake Michigan waterways safe.

O’Bryan, 60, came to Grand Haven in 1983 as a student trainee engineer. Working his way to chief of construction in 1995 and area engineer for the Lake Michigan Area Office in 2009, O’Bryan said he knew he wanted to stay in Grand Haven the moment he arrived.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” he said. “When I saw that river and the harbor and the pier structures, I said to myself, ‘I want to be here.’ I did everything in my power to make it happen.”

The Grand Haven of the 1980s was a different place. The boardwalk was under construction, but it and the piers soon became a major part of his life with ongoing maintenance and repairs.

The most recent of these projects, the completion of the newly surfaced south pier, was the finish line for O’Bryan.

“That’s why I stuck around for another nine months,” he said. “That’s where my home is. I wanted to make sure it got to completion before I got out.”

During his tenure, the Army Corps of Engineers has dredged every harbor on Lake Michigan’s shoreline multiple times, O’Bryan said. In the mid-1980s, he helped construct Muskegon’s south side of the harbor. He also oversaw an extensive flood control project in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Working in the elements of Lake Michigan can be dangerous, but O’Bryan said he has been fortunate to have had few serious injuries under his watch. His priority with every project, he said: “Making sure everybody goes home the way they came in when they started.”

Constant challenges for the Corps of Engineers are acquiring funding for projects and ensuring contractors are completing their work on schedule.

Now a father of four with two grandchildren, O’Bryan hands over the office to Robert Stanick. The corps’ office at 307 S. Harbor Ave. is hosting an open house Thursday to welcome Stranick to the role.

O’Bryan will continue to assist with ongoing work over the next few months, including ecosystem rehabilitation projects across the state.

O’Bryan plans to spend retirement with his family, while leaving his corps family behind.

“You become a family at work,” he said. “I’ve got a family at home, I’ve got a family at the office.”

Without the navigation structures the corps builds and maintains, O’Bryan said, Michigan would lack vital resources brought in and out by commercial vessels. It would also lack the delight that its piers and boardwalks brings to residents and visitors.

“It brings a lot of joy to me seeing people utilizing structures that we’ve worked hard to maintain,” he said.

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