Tom Brennen, former priest

by Andy Mitchell

As a kid growing up in Jacksonville, I was always eager to visit Chicago. Our dad worked in Springfield most of his adult life, at first for the state in various positions, and then in the computer hardware business, when his biggest client was the state. It seemed that regardless of his job he would have to make regular trips to Chicago. And, invariably, my brother and I were in tow.

In the early years Dad worked for DCFS. This particular job called for periodic visits to a reform school in Elgin. Tim and I loved tagging along on Dad’s trips. In addition to the myriad pleasures Chicagoland provided two young small town boys, trips to Elgin meant visits with Tom Brennen.

A former priest who gave up the priesthood to marry a Jewish woman, Brennen was a character of the highest order. Presiding over an institution for “problem” boys, he tackled each day’s task with uncommon grace and good humor. He was hilarious. But his heart was always in the right place.

Once Mr. Brennen was driving us into the city. He and Dad had a meeting with someone near Chinatown. After the meeting, we had lunch in a really loud place that had, “the best wonton soup in town.” Dad argued that the soup at Jimmy Wong’s was superior, but he also argued that the Cubs were better than Tom’s beloved White Sox. Meanwhile Tim and I were rapt, taking it all in. Our senses were full to bursting.

Later that day, we made our way to Comiskey Park. I’ve spent countless hours at “The Friendly Confines” of Wrigley, but only one evening at the old Sox park. And nary a single game at their new place. Harry Caray was still singing (during the seventh inning stretch) for the Sox back then. This was post-Cards, pre-Cubs Harry. And the confines of Comiskey were less than friendly. The ramps you had to navigate to get to your seats were dark with low ceilings, giving you the impression you were being led to a dungeon. But the scoreboard exploded like the Fourth of July when the home team hit one out, while over-imbibing patrons doused visiting outfielders in beer. Ah, the splendors of the great American pastime, as observed in the ‘70s on Chicago’s south side.

Mr. Brennen was a real raconteur, peppering his commentary with “colorful language.” One of his most memorable stories involved a kid being made fun of. Evidently the boy was afflicted with some physical impairment for which the fitter, meaner boys ridiculed him. Well, long story short, the kid, having been backed into a corner, came up with an ingenious defensive move. The punch line of the anecdote still cracks me up: “He just whipped it out and pissed all over ‘em.” Tom thought this was a stroke of brilliance and great humor, and so did we. I wish I could convey the moment better. You really had to be there. In any case, Tom felt the matter had been taken care of sufficiently. Besides, it made a great story. Tom Brennen sure was a hoot, but he was also a genuinely good guy, helping the downtrodden persevere. I’ll never forget him.     

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