Whenever Marissa Russo thinks of Tom Brennan, she pictures him in his classroom, leaning back in a chair with his feet on the desk and a cup of gas-station coffee in his hand.
The 2011 Mattituck graduate always envisions her former teacher laughing his signature “silent but deep” booming belly laugh, too.
“I can’t believe how lucky Mattituck got to score Tom Brennan,” she said of the English and theater teacher, who retired in 2014. “He was such a renaissance man who did so many things. He was the most amazing and deepest blessing we could have ever gotten.”
Mr. Brennan, who died Oct. 25 at age 76, was respected just as highly by his colleagues, many of whom referred to him as a mentor in their own teaching careers.
While still a college student, Mattituck High School social studies teacher Gary Buckner was told to find the teacher students spoke of in a good light and sit in that person’s classroom to learn good teaching practices. At Mattituck, the teacher he shadowed was Mr. Brennan.
“He was as much of a teacher to us as he was to all his other students,” Mr. Buckner said. “I’m forever grateful for that.”
Before he retired, Mr. Brennan told Mattituck English teacher Jacqui Portocarrero that she’d be taking over teaching the theater classes for him.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” she said, “but he made me believe I could do it.”
He instilled that same confidence in his students, especially Katy Berry.
A 2005 Mattituck graduate who was in Mr. Brennan’s AP English class her senior year, Ms. Berry said school wasn’t her strong suit. Seeing her struggle and wanting to help, Mr. Brennan asked her to write the school’s play that year.
“He saw potential in me,” she said. “He encouraged me to write a play, which ended up being our senior play. And he introduced me to comedy and now I’m traveling around the world performing and writing. He saw that in me and put me on that path.”
During Mr. Brennan’s tenure at Mattituck High School, which began in 1987 according a 1999 Suffolk Times article naming him Educator of the Year, he created the theater elective. He installed theater lights and a small stage in his classroom in the old portable structures, and would ask students to perform on the stage, often inviting other classes to watch.
This eventually evolved into Mr. Brennan directing the school’s plays, often picking challenging shows for the students to perform. He also created the tradition of casting faculty members in school productions as well, English teacher Tom Farrell said.
In addition to being a guiding force in many people’s lives, he was also a source of comedy and joy.
Former student Leigh Digons often spent her free time in Mr. Brennan’s office. While chatting with him one day, she mentioned that a classmate had given her a novel to read.
“Mr. Brennan laughed his laugh and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, ‘You know what that means? He is trying to seduce you!’” the 2000 graduate recalled fondly.
Mattituck security staff member Gary Spath remembered a school conference day when faculty members were asked to share a fact about themselves that no one else knew. Many people at the time felt uncomfortable, Mr. Spath said, but Mr. Brennan’s fact — that he cheats at golf — “broke everybody up” because he was usually such a stickler when playing sports.
He wasn’t just a presence in the classroom, though. Even after students graduated, he often met them for breakfast at his favorite places — Erik’s or Jeni’s Main Street Grill, both in Southold — and kept in touch by email.
And when Liz Casey Searl’s brother died at only 21 years of age, Mr. Brennan showed up at the 1995 Mattituck graduate’s home to ask how he could help.
“He sat with me and my other siblings and held us close in his profound, loving embrace,” she said. “For this, and for sharing his quest of life’s meaning, I am eternally grateful.”
It is for all of these traits, and more, that the large number of people he touched and inspired in his life will remember him.
“He became a mentor, a colleague and a friend,” Anne Gilvarry said. A Mattituck graduate, she is now an English teacher at her alma mater. “In every role, he was someone who believed in me when I didn’t and helped me believe it, too. He was also just hilarious and great to be around.”
Courtesy photo: Tom Brennan with former student Brette Rosen at Mattituck High School.