Nancy O'Brien

September  21st, 1938 June  14th, 2024
Tucson, Arizona
Nancy O'Brien

Nancy was always ready with a smile or a laugh, she did not let life's tragedies eclipse life's joys.  Her life's lesson to all of us was always to love and lift up the best in those you love."


Nancy grew up on her family’s farm in Seven Hickory Township in central Illinois with a dad who doted upon her, a mom who played rags and hymns and sewed many of her clothes, and a grandfather who recited poetry to her when he came in from the fields.. She left the farm to go to the University of Illinois to study home economics and music.  There she met and fell in love with David, who would be her partner for the rest of his life. The two married the summer before her senior year and lived in Champaign, Illinois while David finished graduate school, and then moved to Rochester, New York, which seemed like the biggest city in the world to them.  By that time, they had had their first child, Jim, and Nancy had improvised her way through a gig as an interior decorator with hit or miss and sometimes hilarious results. 

Nancy and David were blessed with two more children, their daughters - Rebecca and Alice - and, eventually, five grandchildren - Alison, Rachel, Nina, Teddy, and Ava.  Nancy showered them all with love and support.  Nancy was a voracious reader, a lifelong Democrat, and loved making a good fuss, going out, traveling, book club, art, big parties and fancy feasts, home baked birthday cakes, home renovation projects, fancy duds and beautifully wrapped presents.  Nancy sewed many of her girls’ clothes including their prom, graduation and wedding party dresses. 

In 1973 the family moved to Berkeley California for a sabbatical year for David and brand new vistas for the whole family.  Nancy started teaching piano out of her home, picked up the guitar and some groovy Berkeley vibes.  Back in Rochester, her piano studio grew and for over forty years she taught piano to scores of children, including her own, some of whom even played pretty well.  And she introduced her whole family to great music and art, taking them to orchestral concerts by the Rochester Philharmonic and to hear musical greats including Stevie Wonder, Vladimir Ashkenazy, James Galway, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie and so many others. 

Once all their kids were off to college, Nancy and David moved west to Tucson, Arizona, where Nancy continued teaching piano and David taught Biochemistry at the University of Arizona.  Much to their surprise and delight, their two oldest children followed them to Tucson with their families.  Nancy loved being a grandma and taking care of her granddaughters (Alison, Rachel and Nina), and teaching them all piano.  Nancy was an active member of the Tucson Music Teachers Association and always made sure all her students participated in the Tucson Music Teachers Association Piano Ensemble Festival, which she also chaired a number of years.  She and David loved exploring the west, ran the Grand Canyon in oar boats, hiked the high Sierras and made annual trips up to Park City Utah to ski and enjoy the mountains.  Following David’s passing in 2002, Nancy continued her adventures with trips to Alaska, Norway, Spain, Mexico, raft trips with family down the Green and Salmon rivers, and an 80th birthday trip to France with her family. She dearly loved her weekly lunches with her son Jim, who passed away much too soon in 2020.

Well into her eighties, Nancy continued to live life to its fullest with trips home to the farm in Illinois, to San Francisco and up to Muir Woods, month long visits to DC to see her youngest daughter and family and to hit the Kennedy Center and the Smithsonian. To keep her mind challenged she began classical guitar lessons. And she continued to regularly attend the Tucson Symphony. Nancy was able to live at home until the very end of her life.  She died peacefully with no regrets with her daughter Rebecca at her side.    

Nancy is dearly missed by her two daughters (Rebecca & Alice), her daughter-in-law (Cynthia Nocon), her son-in-law (Joel McElvain), her five grandchildren (Alison, Rachel, Nina, Teddy & Ava), her first cousin Kent Hampton, and her many friends. 


Memory wall

Post your condolences or share your Memories.

July 20, 2024
Nancy was such a wonderful member of our reading group. I was glad to get to know her better through those book-related conversations. She was insightful and I loved hearing details about her upbringing on the farm that would bring added understanding to a thread of discussion.

My warmest condolences to her family.
Marge Pellegrino
July 18, 2024
I loved chatting with Nancy on morning dogs walks! She was such a delightful person--so positive, kind and wise. My daughter Valentine took piano lessons with Nancy. She's not musically inclined, so the lessons didn't "take", but she remembers Nancy very fondly.
Ginny Reiss
July 17, 2024
Both of my daughters and myself had the privilege of taking piano lessons from Nancy. I also am fortunate to live in her neighborhood, within eyeshot of her house. She had a wonderfully positive disposition and it was always a pleasure to greet her when I would meet her while walking in the neighborhood.
When my younger daughter graduated from college, we invited Nancy to celebrate with us and one of my fondest memories of the event was watching Nancy entertain 4 young men from my daughter’s college. They had a lively conversation for nearly an hour.
Diane Foray
July 15, 2024
I will miss you playing piano with me Grandma.


Please join us to celebrate the life of Nancy on Saturday, July 27th from 4 to 5 p.m. at the San Pedro Chapel, 5230 East Fort Lowell Road, Tucson, Arizona.  We will gather to share our memories, cherish the moments shared and the joy she brought into our lives.  We would love to have you join us in celebrating a life well lived by our mom and grandmother.
San Pedro Chapel
5230 E. Fort Lowell Road Tucson, AZ
July 27th at 4 p.m.


In honor of our dear mom and grandmother, we ask that everyone treat one another with good humor and kindness and remember to look for the good in each of us.  For those who would like to honor Nancy in some further way, please consider contributing to the merit scholarship program of the Tucson Music Teachers Association at the link here  Just note on your contribution that it is for the scholarship fund in honor of Nancy and all her work to spread the joy of music to so many students and all of us over so many years.

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