"They told me sometimes groups come into to get them," O'Brien said. "But the letters these volunteer groups didn't take went into the dead letter center, and that bothered me."
Every year since the then, O'Brien volunteered to become Santa Claus, although he started doing it for the post office officially in 1984, as part of the Dear Santa Program.
He worked with the U.S. Post Office to hand out letters from needy children to individuals or offices who want to play "Santa" by purchasing, wrapping and sending a gift. For each "Dear Santa" letter that it receives, the Post Office checks to ensure that it comes from a needy area before putting it into the program.
Over the years, O'Brien has received letters from all over the world, most of them addressed to Santa Claus. O'Brien speaks English, Spanish, French and Italian.
"Most of them are addressed to Santa at the North Pole," he said.
O'Brien has made a point of sending letters back to each kid, handwritten on his own personal Santa Claus stationery.
Although numerous groups have taken up the program around the county, O'Brien receives many of the letters from Hudson County, Newark and other areas. In the past, he has answered them all with a letter, then picked out the most needy cases, usually about three or four, to visit. He arranges for gifts and goes to their homes.
Of these needy cases, O'Brien helps not just the kids, but the parents, too. His help could be anything from helping someone find a job, clothing, or a place to live to assisting with setting up a Christmas party. He said even small things can seem like major problems to people in need. He was involved with the U.S. Marine Corps Toys for Tots campaign, which helped collect and distribute toys to needy children.
O'Brien works as a consumer advocate, a problem-solving agent whose services range from help with passports, visas, and governmental liaison work to activities involving faulty products. He also hosts and produces radio and TV shows and writes a syndicated newspaper column.
Although these and other demands have made him cut back on some of his Christmas letter writing, O'Brien still takes care of the more needy cases, and still has his box to pick up mail at the Secaucus Post Office.
"I still answer some letters coming in and I still visit kids with a hardship and bring them gifts," he said last week.
On Christmas Eve, he makes his rounds to the needy families, visiting their homes to deliver gifts. This sometimes involves checking weather and traffic reports to make certain his route is clear. Over the years, he has visited a variety of places in a variety of neighborhoods, from homeless families in Newark to low-income homes in Jersey City.
"I've gone into very bad neighborhoods," he said. "I remember making a trip to Jersey City on Christmas Eve and coming into the middle of a gun fight in the street. They stopped when they saw me. I told them I had come to help someone in the building and they let me do it. I remember hearing the gun fire start again when I was a few blocks away."
In the early 1990s, O'Brien received a plaque from the U.S. Postal Service for his dedication and service to the Dear Santa Program. He has met and worked with Preston Tisch, then-Postmaster General of the United States. The Secaucus Post Office offers another letters-from-Santa Claus program to residents. Parents may pick up the letters from the post office, fill out the information and then bring them back. The letter will be sent to Santa Claus, Ind., where it will get a postmark and be sent back to the kids.
There are five different versions of the letter, Postmaster Al Forster said. Parents can pick up the pre-written letter, fill out the details such as their kid's name and address, then bring it back to the local post office. The Santa Claus post office in Indiana postmarks about 200,000 holiday cards and a half-million Santa letters each Christmas.