Call Me a Square Shooter, Says Frank Brennan; Legendary Banker, 92, Still Gets into the Office

At 92, Francis Patrick Brennan, dean of Boston's banking community, a first-generation Irish American who elbowed his way into the core of the once Yankee-dominated financial world where Irish need not apply, a vigorous, brassy, high-octane individual with a street-smart quotient that would intimidate the best at Harvard, hasn't lost a step.

Don't be fooled by the walker. His intellectual gait is impressive for a man half his age.

On a steamy summer day, Brennan takes his time making his way to the front door of his Winchester home to greet a visitor. Impeccably dressed in true banker fashion, the chairman of the Business Development Corporation of New England and retired chairman and CEO of Boston's Union Warren Savings Bank with a resume longer than a Tolstoy novel, apologizes for the delay. "I'm having difficulty getting around," he says.

At Brennan's ripe age, he "gets around" better than most of us ever will. He has prepped for the interview as if it were a bank audit; he sits down at the kitchen table and the facts, numbers, and stories roll off his tongue in rapid fire. He fidgets with his red suspenders, an unmistakable symbol of this banker's autonomy, and says, "I had trouble getting them on this morning. They're a pain in the ass."

With all due respect, some might say the same of the straight-talking Brennan. Among them, former Harvard University President Derek Bok, who experienced Brennan's piercing frankness years ago at a Massachusetts Historical Society Library function. Bok, according to Brennan, told his audience that at Harvard there were no right or wrong answers. ‘We just pose the question, and the student makes up his or her mind,' " Brennan quoted him as saying.

After the speech, Brennan braced Bok in a classic Yankee-Gaelic confrontation. "When I was growing up," Brennan, a Boston College graduate, told him, "I was taught there was a right and a wrong, that nothing was left to the imagination. I have to tell you, Mr. Bok, I don't agree with one [expletive] thing you said today."

A man of deep faith in the Scriptures, Brennan's remarkable life lines up in lockstep with James 5:12: "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no." There's no middle ground with Brennan, no maybe.

This is a man who was censured decades ago by a politically correct Little League director in Winchester for his pursuit of perfection. "You're too competitive, you want to win all the time," Brennan, a father of four, was told before being put on notice that he might be banned from coaching at an upcoming board meeting.

"I thought winning was a good thing," Brennan, who served in a World War II tank battalion under Gen. George Patton, earning a Bronze Star, replied to his critic. "I can't stop you from bringing it up. I'll tell you that most of the directors are coaches and friends of mine, and they're going to vote with me. But if I lose, I'm going to knock you right square on your butt before I get out of that room!"

Brennan, the street fighter from Somerville, won the vote hands down.

Get the picture? There are many who say the world could use more Frank Brennans.

A consummate family man, Brennan has set his priorities as straight as a ledger line — always putting first his late wife Mary (Gilhooly), who was a Somerville schoolteacher, and his children. "When I lost Mary about 12 years ago," he says. "I lost everything. I'm still not over it."

Nothing has been easy in Brennan's life; there were no free passes for this son of a gritty laborer from the little Kerry village of Maulagaliane, just  north of Sneem, His dad was "a rough, tough Harp," as Brennan calls him. Perseverance, hard work, and integrity are the cornerstones of Brennan's family and professional life — rocks of experience that he has passed on to his children and to others. He insists on self-reliance. For example, when Brennan was head of Union Warren Savings Bank, none of his children were given summer jobs there. Instead, they cut grass, babysat, worked in local shops, and one of them drove a trash truck. Today, they are all facsimiles of their father: Jack is chairman and former CEO of the Philadelphia-based Vanguard Group, one of the most successful mutual fund companies in the world; Thomas, headquartered in Boston, is a senior vice president of Bank of America; Mary Ann is a former vice president for Bank of Boston; and Eileen is in charge of nurse recruitment at Georgetown University Hospital.

Brennan, who has eight doting grandchildren, still works two days a week, leaving home with a driver who takes him to the Business Development Corporation offices. Brennan was the first employee at MassBusiness, an institution recognized nationally as a leader and innovator in business lending and capital investments. Over seven decades of professional work, Brennan has remained true to his guiding, Depression-era principles:

"I'm an Irish banker," says the former chairman of the board of the Dreyfus/Laurel Mutual Fund. "My word is my bond. I'm going to listen to your problems, and help you solve them. I'm not going to do anyone any big favors. I'm straight as a string, and I play no favorites, no matter your name or background. You'll get a fair hearing from me, and if it's justified, I'll do something for you. But it will be up to me. That's just the way it's been."

So much for special interests, and yet that's what makes Brennan so special, say his friends in high places.

On the occasion of his 90th birthday, some of Boston's best and brightest assembled at his alma mater to honor him with the establishment of the Francis P. Brennan Fund in Leadership and Ethics, which supports a student symposium within BC's Winston Center. The affair was hosted by Brennan's close friend, George Regan of Regan Communications, and the guests included former Boston mayors Kevin White and Ray Flynn, Bob Sheridan, president and CEO of SBLI, Pat Purcell, president and publisher of Herald Media, and other luminaries. Said Sheridan of Brennan, "He has been an iconic figure in the Boston banking and business landscape. Frank exemplifies what business should be in terms of financial, ethical, and community bottom lines." Added Purcell, his "character, leadership and principles have inspired legions in our community for many, many years."

Taking such praise characteristically in stride, Brennan points to his parents' lives as the compass for his own. In spite of the turbulence of his growing-up years in Somerville — the lack of money, the fact that his father was on welfare for many years (assistance from the New Deal's Works Progress Administration), and the in-your-face discrimination against the Irish — there was a peace in the Brennan household, and it came from pastoral Sneem in Kerry County near where Brennan's parents grew up in a quintessential Irish village surrounded by mountains with rocky peaks that is considered among the prettiest in the land.

Brennan's father, John, and his mother, Bridget (Sullivan), immigrated to Boston in their 20s and met at a Somerville dance. They dated, were soon married, and then had two children. John bought a three-decker on Somerville Avenue near Porter Square, which he financed through the rents of his tenants while working during the day as a laborer for a light company from which he was laid off during the Depression. Subsequently, his son Frank, a fiery 10-year-old redhead, went to work installing lamps on a construction site while his father maintained the house.

"My parents were strict," Frank recalls. "There was no messing around. But they were fair and loving. Mother, a well-educated and religious woman, ran the family finances, and Dad did the work. My mother went through six or seven grades in Ireland; I don't think my father went to two, but he was self-taught and an avid reader. We had no car in those days, no telephone, and my parents only got a radio after a little pressure from my brother John and me. No one around us had much, either."

Brennan credits a sage sixth-grade teacher for motivating him to advance his education. He assumed he would never have the money for a college and had opted for a general trade education in junior high school, rather than a college preparatory course. " ‘You're a good student,' she said, as she enrolled me in the college prep training. ‘If you continue to be a good student, the money will come.' "

And it did, albeit slowly. After Somerville High School, Brennan attended Boston College and upon graduation in 1939, he worked as a janitor and gas attendant. Then a close BC connection, his ethics teacher, Fr. John O'Brien, helped him land a job with the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), the government loan agency. Lacking formal accounting training, he was relegated to odd jobs and chores, like washing the desks the day before the esteemed CEO of the agency, Emil Schram, later the head of the New York Stock Exchange, came to Boston for an inspection.

"I was handed a large bucket and a sponge half the size to wash the desks, and I'm not in a very good mood about it after graduating cum laude from BC," Brennan recalls. "The assistant manager comes over and says, ‘I see you're not washing the legs of the desks.' That did it! I told him, ‘No, and I'm not washing the damn tops of the desk, either.' I threw the sponge in the buck and it splashed all over his trousers. All I could think of is how the hell am I going to tell my father that I was fired from what he thought was the greatest job around."

Basic rule of physics: When a greater force confronts a lesser force, the greater force wins. Brennan wasn't fired; the docile assistant manager, dripping wet, walked back to his office, and in time the RFC looked to promote Brennan. "I was told that I needed accounting training to be a loan officer, and was sent to Bentley three nights a week." Brennan left Bentley in 1942 to join the Army, and when he returned he became an RFC loan officer without a Bentley degree; several years ago, the college awarded Brennan an honorary undergraduate degree at a special ceremony with family members in attendance.

After the war, Brennan married Mary Gilhooly, whom he had known since childhood. He says he always suspected their mothers had plotted sub rosa to arrange a courtship. The couple settled in Arlington, then Winchester to raise their family.

After a seven-year tenure as an RFC loan officer, Brennan joined the Massachusetts Business Development Corporation where he became the executive vice president. He went on to serve as chairman and CEO of Union Warren Savings Bank where he oversaw the successful merger of several community banks and guided the growth of the institution's assets from $30 million to a billion dollars. The list of Brennan's professional and civic affiliations is numbing to record:  the board of directors of the Home Owners Savings Bank in Burlington, former president of the Massachusetts Bankers Association Savings Bank Association of Massachusetts; former director of the Massachusetts Bankers Association; former chairman of the Massachusetts Purchasing Group; former director of the Boston Mutual Life Insurance Company; former board member of the National Council of Savings Organizations; former chairman of the Boston Savings Central Fund; former member of the Advisory Committee of the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae); and former director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Greater Boston Real Estate Board.

Politically eclectic, Brennan today faults the greed of bankers, Wall Street, and politicians for the frightful state of the economy, and has little confidence in Washington. "Any time a fix comes out of Washington, the fix is worse than the problem," he says. "Those guys have never had to really fix anything; they just throw more money at it."

Born in 1917 when Woodrow Wilson was president and the year the United States entered World War I, Frank Brennan has experienced a wide swath of life, but he has never strayed beyond his roots and his religion. Fiercely independent, he lives alone with his Springer spaniel, Jake, and has assistance with cleaning and meals. And he has never lost sight of "the boss."

"I have great faith," he says. "The Lord has blessed me. I have days that are good and days that are bad, but I'm here until the Lord calls me."

Judging from the files and piles of paperwork on his kitchen table, that call won't come for some time. Francis Patrick Brennan at 92 is fully engaged in life, saying of himself:

"This is one tough son-of-a-bitch, but he'll give you what you deserve."

Greg O'Brien is president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications strategy company based in Brewster. The author/editor of several books, he also writes frequently for regional and national publications.