School leader’s loss felt
Former PMS, CHS principal dies at 66
Friends and colleagues in the Monadnock region are mourning the loss of Tom Brennan, a former Hancock resident who served as assistant principal at Peterborough Middle School and principal at Conant High School in Jaffrey before going on to a distinguished career as a school district administrator. Brennan died April 9, less than a year after retiring as superintendent of the Manchester School District.
Although Brennan left Hancock, moving with his family to New London as his career developed, he never lost his connection to the schools and people of the Monadnock region. He’d return every year for Hancock’s Old Home Day celebration, where he could be found flipping hamburgers on the village green, a tradition that started when his daughters were at the town’s preschool. And he kept close ties with many friends, who last week remembered his love of teaching, concern for his students and buoyant personality.
“Tom Brennan was one of those once-in-a-lifetime people that you’re lucky to meet, just a great human being,” said former South Meadow School principal Dick Dunning, who was the teaching principal at Dublin Consolidated School when he met Brennan, who was principal at Peterborough Middle School. “He had a great sense of humor, and his dedication to making school the best possible experience for kids was obvious. What comes to mind is how well respected he was, by the staff and also by parents and students.”
Brennan, his wife Wendy and their three young daughters came to Hancock in 1979, when Brennan, who had been a counselor at schools in Lawrence, Mass., was hired as assistant principal at Peterborough Middle School. He spent four years there before moving on to Conant High School, where he served briefly as assistant principal before taking a break to work in the private sector. Brennan returned to Conant in 1988, this time as principal, and he worked there for 10 years. Brennan was honored in 1994 as New Hampshire’s principal of the year.
When Brennan left Conant, he moved into school district administration, serving as assistant superintendent for the Manchester School District, then as superintendent of the Kearsarge School District before ending his career with a five-year stint as superintendent in Manchester.
Brennan retired from his Manchester post in June 2013. He was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a few months later.
Lisa Pelkey of Fitzwilliam worked as Brennan’s secretary at Conant for nearly a dozen years.
“He had a huge love for the students,” Pelkey recalled. “That was first and foremost for him. He had a great respect for the people he worked with and it was always a relaxed atmosphere to work in. Every day was a joy.”
Pelkey said Brennan was firm with students when he needed to be, but students respected him.
“I don’t think I ever met a student who didn’t have good things to say about him,” she said.
Marsha Griffin of Jaffrey, who serves on the Jaffrey-Rindge School Board, said Brennan was the one who encouraged her to apply for a teaching job at Conant High School.
“He had been the assistant principal there, and he said ‘You’ll like it over there. They are real people.’” Griffin said. “He was right. I took the job in 1984 and Tom came back as principal in 1988. He brought fun to the high school. He was young at heart, always, and an infectious leader. The students just adored him.”
Griffin said Brennan encouraged teachers to use innovative techniques and was a strong supporter of one of their proposals, known as the Conant Plan, that was intended to create a sort of school within a school where students could do more hands-on learning and work at their own pace.
“It was way ahead of the curve, too far ahead for the district,” Griffin said. “But he was willing to support us in what we wanted to do, if he thought it was educationally sound.”
The proposal was controversial in Jaffrey and Rindge. After it was eventually turned down, Brennan was able to put aside his disappointment, according to longtime Jaffrey-Rindge School Board member Dan Whitney of Rindge.
“Tom was instrumental is bringing everybody in the district back together,” Whitney said. “His attitude was ‘We have a job to do, let’s get back to doing it.’ That’s easy to do when everyone agrees with you, but not so easy when they don’t.”
Whitney said Brennan did everything with class.
“He was an absolute gentleman, and always focused on how we could make the school better,” Whitney said.
Cheryl Jessie of Bennington, who now works as an occupational therapist for the ConVal School District, got to know Brennan when she attended Peterborough Middle School.
“Everybody loved him,” Jessie recalled. “He was a good disciplinarian, but he was always joking with the kids and was very well liked.”
Jessie had a neck injury when she was in seventh grade that required her to wear a halo device to keep her head in the proper position. She said Brennan gave her lots of help as she adjusted to a challenging situation.
“He really watched out for me and made sure I could do everything that the others were doing,” she said.
Jessie, who lived in Hancock, also baby sat for Brennan’s four daughters and as a high-schooler rode with the family to his daughters’ basketball games.
“He was always sort of a mentor for me,” she said. “We always looked forward to seeing him when he came back on Old Home Day.”
Don Briggs of Hancock met Brennan when Briggs and his wife, Pat, served on an Old Home Day organizing committee with Tom and Wendy.
“Our sense of humor got us into trouble with our wives, but we became fast friends,” Briggs said. “We’d get together to talk about schools and teaching and what was going on and I’d often go hiking with Tom and his four girls on Saturday mornings. He really enjoyed his daughters.”
Briggs thinks Brennan first started flipping burgers on Old Home Day back in the 1980s, when his children were in the Hancock preschool. And he continued the tradition long after the girls were grown.
“He was one of the good guys. That’s the thing to remember about Tom,” said another Hancock friend, Charlie Ingalls. “I’m struck by how community minded he was. He came back and cooked those hamburgers for 20 years, long after he’d moved from town.”
Ken Moller of Hancock, an avid golfer, said Brennan also loved the game.
“He volunteered to caddie for me in the NHGA Mid Am years ago at Concord Country Club,” Moller recalled, “but when we arrived he found out there was still room in the tournament. So he borrowed some clubs out of the pro shop, got a pair golf shoes from the pro and bought some golf balls and he played. Never did caddie. We laughed a lot over that.”
Brennan’s daughter Jennifer, in an email to the Ledger-Transcript, said her family loved the time they spent in Hancock.
“My father was particularly proud of his work at Conant High School,” she wrote. “I think he felt a kindred spirit with the students, families and colleagues there. We talk constantly about living in Hancock and the close friends we made there. In his last few days, as we sought to fill his room with love and laughter, many stories came from our days in Hancock. From Old Home Days to swimming at Norway Pond and playing at the ball field. What a wonderful place to have all of our childhood memories.”
During his tenure in Manchester, Brennan led that big-city school district through a period described last week in a Manchester Union-Leader editorial as “five tumultuous, trying years.” The editorial noted that Brennan consistently put students first and didn’t hesitate to advocate for his ideas: “He guided some serious reforms, the most important being the granting of academic credits for sports and off-campus instruction. And though he often found himself unjustly on the receiving end of deliberately barbed criticism, he did his job with good humor and a gentle kindness.”
Brennan’s obituary appears on page 19.
Dave Anderson can be reached at 924-7172, ext. 233 or email@example.com. He’s on Twitter at @DaveAndersonMLT.