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Tim and Wendie O’Brien at Ted’s Coney Island

1/31/2024

Tim and Wendi O’Brien then.

Tim and Wendie O’Brien are horse people with a challenging love story. Because it’s St. Valentine’s month, we asked them to lunch, and they chose Ted’s Coney Island, an Ingersoll stalwart that occupies the iconic International House of Pancakes building that it succeeded. Ted’s has been around Des Moines since 1927 and offers drive-through and sit-down services.

Over chili, gyros, salads and Graziano sausage sandwiches, we talked about their “against the odds” marriage.  

Tim and Wendie suffered the ultimate challenge to love. Wendie backed up her car in the driveway without seeing her daughter behind it. 

“At the time we were told that over 90% of couples who go through anything like that break apart,” said Wendie.

“Our bond got stronger. We had a surviving son to raise,” said Tim.

“And he was devasted about losing his sister,” Wendie added.

People grieve differently. Tim threw himself into work, and Wendie took time off to commiserate. Many of their friends worried they wouldn’t make it. After all, they got married in a fever. 

“We met in 1979 in Phoenix, even though we both grew up in Des Moines. Wendie opened a Spaghetti Works there, and I was working as a carpenter,” said Tim.

While they were dating, Wendie opened a place in Tucson. 

“We would meet every weekend in Rustlers Roost, half way between Phoenix and Tucson. There was an Indian casino with an ATM.”  

A few years later, Tim was transferred to Sacramento. 

Tim and Wendi O’Brien now.

“I didn’t want to go. Then one day I opened the shower curtain, and Tim is there saying, ‘I am going to Sacramento, even if we are married.’ All I said was ‘worst proposal ever.’ We ran off to Vegas and got married at the Little White Chapel. Just like in all the stereotypical movies. We passed on the Elvis package. We only had two witnesses, our best friends,” said Wendie.“Our wedding package included a choice of a bottle of champagne or a wedding video. We wanted the video, but my best man had already taken the bottle of champagne. Our friends posted an over/under number on our marriage — three and a half years,” Tim recalled.

“That was because I was a wild woman then,” Wendie interjected.

“We honeymooned in Laughlin. At the time (1985), Laughlin was just pontoon boats and casinos. Nothing like today,” said Tim. 

“On our way home, we were so tired that we didn’t know we were going in the wrong direction till we saw a sign saying, ‘Los Angeles 100 miles.’ A week later, we moved to Sacramento. A tire blew just as we entered the city. Friends from Bend came to our reception there,” Wendie remembered.

They spent seven years in California’s capital city when it was booming. Both took the real estate exam. Tim passed it on his first try but quickly realized, “I was the worst salesman in California.” Wendie had a harder time with the exam but did well in the business. Tim built houses, and Wendie sold them. What brought them back to Des Moines? 

“Schools and family. I graduated from Valley High School, and Tim went to Dowling. We knew (son) TJ would get a far better education here than in Sacramento,” Wendie recalled. 

“The main thing that carried over from Sacramento is we are both still 49’ers fans,” added Tim. 

Psychologists believe that the presence of animals helps people get through tragedies. Living with animals prepares them better because one gets used to animals passing on. Wendie is a lifelong horseperson. A serious one. Both her mother and grandmother were, too. Her grandmother was the first female horse trainer at Madison Square Garden’s National Equestrian Championships. Her mom owned a stable with 50 horses.

“Hardest job I ever had was moving the horses to Grand West after the stable caught fire. I grew up on the road. We would be away for horse shows Wednesdays through Sundays. It was a kind of a gypsy life. I didn’t have time to learn how to swim until I was 26,” Wendie said.

Her first job back in Iowa was at Jester Park Riding Stables. 

“Yeah, I shattered my wrist early on. But I still gave trail rides there from 1995-97. Campers liked to ride, but we got $10 per ride and that barely covered our insurance. It was an interesting place for trail rides. Once I had a blind woman. Another time I had a lady who was too heavy to mount a horse by herself. We had 10 horses, and one of them was a biter. He got his mouth stuck full of a stirrup. The best thing about that job was Tim learned to ride,” Wendie remembered.

TJ became a successful ultimate fighting competitor, and his son is now excelling at wrestling. Of course, Tim and Wendie are their biggest fans. It seems like the scions inherited the O’Brien grit.

Tim and Wendie ride together today, and they still make gypsy jaunts to horse shows. ♦

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