I said I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan and Joe just buried his face in his hands.
“Sixty-four was the worst year of my life,” he offered, and the way he pronounced four and worst told me why.
“Yankee fan,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“All my life,” he answered as though it were. “Grew up in Queens, worked in Manhattan.”
1964, the year the Cardinals beat the Yankees in the World Series, aside, I could tell Joe and I were going to hit it off. And that was a good thing for both of us. It had already been a long day and promised to just get longer.
We were seated in the OR waiting room at Geisinger Wyoming Valley. Joe’s wife was having her carotid artery done. My buddy — a friend of 51 years — was in for a skin graft that we were told would take 8 hours. It took 10. I was his go-to guy in case the doctors needed to talk to someone. It was a role from which we wanted to spare his 89-year-old mom and I was honored to be the one chosen for it.
Joe and I were sitting vigil, so to speak, filled with feelings of concern and helplessness sprinkled with a certain amount of guilt at the slightest thought that time was dragging. After all, we weren’t the ones under the knife. The day had nothing to do with us.
Still, finding each other was a blessing. It was pushing 5 p.m. Joe had been there since 7 that morning. I arrived early afternoon.
Baseball was the common bond at first but the conversation soon spread to travel, although our mutual experiences at Cooperstown still had a baseball theme, families, personal history, and the two people in surgery who had brought us there.
I pegged Joe at maybe 10 years old than I and it turned out I was right. He and his wife have been married 56 years. She was just 17 when they tied the knot. He a year older. He was in the Army then, stationed in Germany, late ’50s. They rented from a German couple with no children. Joe’s first child was born there and the German couple loved her like their own. When she was 20, Joe’s wife took her back to meet them.
Joe’s wife presented him with three daughters, each the apple of his eye, although he would have liked someone to play catch with once in a while.
He worked hard, sold insurance, hit Yankee stadium whenever he could, bought a Mustang Mach I brand new in ‘69, red, wishes he still had it, traveled a lot with his older brother, now passed, recommends Quebec City, retired now, lives near Jim Thorpe, four dogs at home, one a 15-year old Boston Terrier, worried about how they were getting along alone in the house.
That’s the stuff we talked about. And two hours flew right by.
Joe got sprung first. The call finally came that his wife was being moved to a room. He took a couple of steps when I realized I never asked his last name so I called after him. “Brennan,” he said and we shook hands good-bye.
As he left, I sat down and smiled.
I taught a speech class this summer. Always have the students do a eulogy. I figure it’s one speech most of them will have to give some day. “I want to tell you about my dad,” Beth, a non-traditional (meaning older) student began. “He died way too soon in his early 50s.”
As she talked about him I couldn’t help but sense that I knew her father. By the time she finished, I was certain I did.
“Your dad was Joe Brennan?” I asked.
“He was,” she said. “Brennan is my maiden name.”
The Joe Brennan she so fondly remembered in her speech was a legendary Wilkes-Barre newspaper man, general manager of The Sunday Independent at the time of his death.
I remember him as thoughtfully reaching out to me at a time when I came to a crossroads in my career. I had never met or spoken to Joe Brennan before when, out of the blue, he called me and asked if he could buy me breakfast. Of course he could. As I said, he was a legend. I couldn’t believe he knew who I was.
I had been in the business a good 20 years at the time working for the then-family-owned Sunday Dispatch. But the paper had just been sold to Capital Cities, the group that also owned the Times Leader in Wilkes-Barre, a rival of Brennan’s Sunday Independent.
Over breakfast, Joe Brennan was complimentary (he told me he had followed my career and knew I was a good newspaperman) and soothing (he told me not to worry, that a guy with my skills would do well working for Cap Cities.) The thing is, he didn’t have to do this. He did it because that is the type of man Joe Brennan was. He simply cared about others. His kindness knew no bounds.
Those are the things his daughter said about him in her eulogy. And that’s how I knew she was talking about the same Joe Brennan who was so generous to me some 25 years ago.
The more recent Joe Brennan in my life was much the same, a kind, loving gentleman, comfortable with who he is and in sharing himself with others.
I am blessed to have encountered each of them.