By Ray O’Hanlon
Christmas Eve was always the biggest night of the year in the Brennan household. It will be especially important this year, as the family gathers in the Connecticut town of New Canaan to mark the holiday and remember a son and brother, Frank Brennan, who was lost in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.
“Christmas Eve in our house was the time when the family gathered,” Frank’s mother, Mary, said last weekend from the Westchester County home of her daughter Sally Jerome.
“It was always nice to see Frank and Barbara, his wife, who has been a pillar of strength. That was the one night that he would never say, ‘Mom, I can’t come.’ ‘I’ll be there, Mom,’ he would always say.”
Mary Brennan will be surrounded by her five grown children this coming Monday night. There will be in-laws, too, and grandchildren. And there will be fond memories of Frank, enough of them to fill the room in much the way that he, all 6 feet, 7 inches of him, would have done in years past and before his life was snuffed out by evil hands.
The far-scattered Brennans will come to Connecticut from New York, Massachusetts and Maryland. They will embrace, they will remember, they will raise a glass to Frank, who proudly carried the name of his late father, Frank Sr.
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Larger than life
Frank Brennan was, in many so many ways, a larger than life guy. He was a high school and college basketball star at Quinnipiac in Hamden, Conn., a keen golfer, one-time Long Island night club owner and, ultimately, senior vice president and limited partner at Cantor Fitzgerald, the company that suffered the hardest single blow on Sept 11.
But that was only the fun and work part of Frank Brennan. In between the two, and it was a big in-between, Frank was a member of the board of directors of the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund. Among his many friends was that organization’s guiding mentor, baseball legend Rusty Staub.
“Rusty had a restaurant and I think that’s where Frank met him. He used to go into the restaurant and he got friendly with Rusty,” Mary said.
“They were golfing buddies,” said Frank’s sister, Kathleen Carey. “And when Rusty got involved for the widows and children, Frank got involved too, not just because of Rusty, but because of his devotion to those families. He was very committed to the families of the firefighters and police.
“He just really loved those people, he really felt an affinity with them. He just said to me on one occasion that those were people who put their lives on the line every day, and as they didn’t have the opportunity to make big bucks like him, he could be the connection to bring the fund-raising and the money from the Wall Street community to the families of deceased firefighters and police.”
“It wasn’t just about writing checks,” Kathleen continued. “He gave money, he raised money and he did the hands-on work. He once told me that when he retired from Cantor Fitzgerald he was going to spend his time raising money full time for the fund so that they would have an endowment.
“He was pushing the committee to raise $25 million for the fund, and since Frank’s death, of course, the fund has raised more than that. And so I feel he had a mission and the mission was completed, albeit through tragedy. That gives me a lot of comfort.”
What is also giving the Brennan family comfort this Christmas is Frank’s brother Brian, a survivor of the attack on Lower Manhattan. Brian works for Merrill Lynch and was in the neighboring World Financial Center when the first plane hit the trade tower. Brian’s anger at the death of his brother is evident, but restrained.
“Right after he died, a lot of people were saying, God I hope we get that guy bin Laden and I found no comfort in that,” he said. “Intellectually, yes, I thought, we should go to Afghanistan and track these guys down, but emotionally that idea didn’t give me any comfort. I am actually impressed the way we, the country, have gone about it. It seems like Bush and the military have done a great job but I don’t feel anything personal toward Osama bin laden. Still, that’s not going to make me feel any better about my brother, or the other people who died.
“My one concern was that people would forget. Personally I don’t want to get back to my normal routine. I don’t want to forget what happened.”
Sense of loss
Anger yes, and the family’s deep sense of loss, rather than just vengeance in response to it, are feelings about which Brian, Kathleen and their sister Sally are in overall agreement.
“I remember we were talking about this and I remember hearing President Bush speak right after it happened and I was so shocked that we were going to get him, because it had never crossed my mind,” Sally said. “Maybe because we were so close to the destruction, in theory, yeah, you should get someone who does something so awful to you, but if you’re right in the midst of it . . . ”
“It’s not going to bring them back,” said Kathleen.
“Yeah, it’s just talking about additional destruction of life,” Sally said, nodding in agreement.
The family has been watching the news from Afghanistan, of course, but it seems far away and separated from the events of Sept. 11. However, last week’s tape on which bin Laden clearly admits his role in the attack, has focused Brian’s mind a little more on justice and retribution. Mary, Sally and Kathleen would rather not see the tape.
“I think our faith has a lot to do with our sense of comfort,” Mary said. “As much as we’re all upset, people of faith turned to me and said he’s gone to a better place and over the months that’s what you think.”
“I’m angry, really I’m angry because of the senseless loss,” Kathleen said. “It’s not just because of my brother; it’s because of all of these people, all the families who are suffering. I think a lot of people of faith believe that the victims have gone to something better. I have a great deal of comfort and of peace when I think about my brother because I do think that he’s at peace and I think he lived a life with a mission that was completed. But it’s the rest of us, the ones who are left behind — and I think of the children who are left behind without fathers and mothers, who are suffering the hands of this senseless event. And it makes me very angry.”
Said Sally: “For a long time we asked each other, did it really happen, was it a dream? We would call each other at work and ask each other what are you doing. Sitting at my desk, guess that’s what Frank was doing.”
“It won’t be forgotten, said Brian. “Because of the magnitude, because so many people were affected. I don’t think I’ve had a conversation in a social situation where it hasn’t come up.”
What will the family do this Christmas?
“We’ll be in Mom’s on Christmas Eve. That is our tradition,” Kathleen said.
“On the day when it all happened,” said Sally, “there was a time when we didn’t know Brian was OK. So, from that perspective, there’s a lot to be thankful for.”
“Frank, believe me, wasn’t a saint,” said Kathleen. “But he was a guy who did a lot of quiet good. He would never tell you. . . . He had achieved financial success and security and a certain amount of prestige at what he did but he never forgot the people who really needed help, and Frank was always there in a quiet way to help, and that’s how I would like to remember him.”
We can’t be sure because we were not there. But it would have been entirely consistent with Frank Brennan’s character and personality if, in the final minutes of his life, he gave solace and comfort to his Cantor Fitzgerald colleagues, telling them with the certainty of faith in his voice that the firefighters and cops were on their way.
And of course Frank would have been right. He knew those guys. He was a brother too.