Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Thomas N. Brennan, S.J.

It is with sadness that I pass along the news of the death of one of my favorite teachers.

During the recent Marquette University High School 150th anniversary commemoration in Milwaukee, I searched in vain for Father Thomas N. "T" Brennan, S.J., who had been listed in the program as a concelebrant at the anniversary Mass at the Al McGuire Center. I wanted to speak with him and thank him for being such a terrific teacher. Only now have I learned that he was seriously ill.

Here is the text of a letter that was sent out by the president of MUHS, Father Warren Sazama, S.J., to faculty, students, and alumni:

Let us pray in thanksgiving for our brother, Fr. Thomas N. Brennan, who was called to eternal life this morning, August 28. He was 75 years old.

Fr. “T” Brennan was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on August 6, 1932. After graduation from Marquette University High School (MUHS) he entered the Society of Jesus at Florissant, Missouri, on August 7, 1950. “T” received an A.B. degree in philosophy from St. Louis University (SLU) in 1956 and then taught Latin, history, and theology at MUHS. In 1961 he received a M.A. degree in history and in 1965 a S.T.B. in theology, both from SLU. After theology studies he taught Latin, history and drama at MUHS for one year, before doing tertianship in Decatur, Illinois, under the direction of Fr. Charles Hunter, S.J. Returning to MUHS, he taught history, drama and theology from 1966 through 1980. During the sabbatical year that followed he did studies at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago, Illinois, the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago, and at the Gild Hall School of Drama in London, England. He took time also for study at the Center for Ignatian Spirituality in Rome. From 1981 to 1988 he was again teaching theology, history and drama at MUHS. In 1988 he was assigned to Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where until 1996 he was chaplain to, and taught theology in, the school of Business Administration. After a year of sick leave, he returned to the same ministry until February of 2005, when he moved to St. Camillus due to failing heath.

Visitation will take place starting at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, August 31 in the first floor chapel of San Camillo (10200 West Blue Mound Road) followed by mass at 7:00 p.m. Burial will be at 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, September 1, at Calvary Cemetery.
T Brennan was one of the most influential teachers I encountered in 18 years of formal education. At Marquette High, he taught me theology and AP European History. In the latter class, he raised the bar for me and my classmates, teaching us not only the subject matter but also how to do historical research effectively and how to present one's findings in a comprehensible and analytical manner.

Moreover, as the director of Senior Follies and the Prep Players, T deepened in me my already burgeoning love for the theatre. His instructions about how best to create a character, how to project vocally and physically across a large auditorium, and how to maintain one's dignity before, during, and after a performance have stayed with me for more than 30 years. Working under him as a member of the Follies writing committee was a whirlwind course in sketch writing, parody, and the structure of musical comedy. His standards (no scatological humor, no drag characters in Follies, no condescension) may seem quaint today but they are nonetheless enduring.

Father Brennan was an excellent academic counselor: He was one of the teachers who wrote letters of recommendation for me to apply to Georgetown University, but beyond that he undergirded my confidence so that I would take the risk of seeking a place at a highly-selective institution rather than play it safe by applying to schools closer to home with lower standards. I took his advice in these matters seriously ("Learn French," he said wryly, upon learning of my plans to study at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service; wry, of course, was his metier) and the lessons he taught served me well in college, graduate school, and beyond.

He was also a spiritual guide. A small group of us students often gathered in his office, overlooking the stage in the MUHS auditorium, for a short Mass during lunch hour. (So short it made Freeze's Breeze, which I later encountered at Georgetown, seem like War and Peace.) These quiet quarter-hours were welcome during the hectic and often anxious months of senior year.

Earlier this year I posted the videos of Guys & Dolls and the Class of 1977's Senior Follies on YouTube and on this blog. In tribute to T Brennan, here again are excerpts from Blazing Seniors. (You'll see him, in his usual seat in the middle of the auditorium, at 00:18 on the first video.)

If the world had more teachers of T Brennan's caliber, it would be such a much better place -- more literate, more erudite, more appreciative of light, beauty, and laughter. He will be missed by the thousands of students who passed through his classroom, and by thousands more who may never have met him but who feel his influence indirectly.


Molly Brennan said...

Wow. Thank you, Rick, for these words. I just came across your blog when searching a search. Tom is my uncle and am thankful I got to see him, alive and talking, only last week. I am a teacher and only HOPE to half the influence on my students as he, obviously, had on his. Thank you. -Molly Brennan

Anonymous said...

Father "T" directed me in Senior Follies in '77. When he had a heart attack in 1979, some forty of us MUHS classmates at the University of Wisconsin signed get well cards to him.

RIck, I'm glad you wrote of how influential he was for you academically, as I never had him as a classroom teacher and didn't know that aspect of him.