In the early 1900's an Irish immigrant
from County Roscommon came to America and settled in Newark on 357
In 1905, while employed as a coal heaver in the Ballantine Brewery
in Newark's Ironbound District along the banks of the Passaic River,
he became the father of a son -- the second of what would eventually
grow to eight siblings.
He named his second child after himself, "William" but
tagged a "Jr." on the end, William J. Brennan, Jr.
From his humble beginnings as a coal heaver, the immigrant father
engaged himself in union activities, and emerged as an activist
in Newark organized labor.
He subsequently ran for a seat on the five-man Newark City Commission1,
and upon his election was named Director of Public Safety.
Although in the first decade of my life, I fondly recall one of
the senior Brennan's campaigns for re-election. It involved numerous
candidates, all of whom issued colorful campaign buttons, which
we kids collected and traded.
I recall that the campaign buttons were all round-shaped with
the sole exception of the Brennan campaign button, which was in
the shape of a horizontal oval with "BRENNAN" in white
on the royal blue background. I had traded two round buttons of
other candidates for one oval Brennan button.
As a City Commissioner, Brennan, Sr., took an active interest
in community affairs. In 1928 at the "First Annual Pre-Election
Frolic and Dinner-Dance" of the recently-formed, nearly all
Jewish Third Ward Political Club, a page in the front of the Dinner-Dance
Program read: "Compliments of Commissioner William J. Brennan,
As one of eight children, William, Jr. earned pocket money in
his youthful years delivering milk, pumping gas, and making change
for passengers awaiting trolley cars.
Later, William, Jr., now a resident on Munn Avenue in Newark's
Vailsburg section, enjoyed success of a different kind. He graduated
from Barringer High School with honors and won a scholarship to
The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1928.
Three years later, relying on both odd jobs and a scholarship
to obtain necessary funds, he was accepted into and received a degree
at the Harvard Law School. William, Jr.'s father died while he was
still attending Harvard.
After graduation from Harvard, he joined a Downtown Newark law
firm and was made a partner after seven years.
He left his law partnership during World War II to serve in the
Army, where he specialized in resolution of labor issues resulting
from transformation to a wartime production economy. He was discharged
as a Colonel in 1945.
In 1948, Brennan was appointed to the New Jersey Superior Court
by Governor Alfred Driscoll.
In 1951, he was elevated to the New Jersey Supreme Court where
he served until 1956, when President Dwight Eisenhower named him
a United State Supreme Court Justice.
Although William J. Brennan, Jr. was America's 92nd Supreme Court
Associate Justice, his appointment made history. He was the first
Catholic to sit on the High Court, six years before Americans would
elect their first Catholic President.
Justice Brennan served on the High Court for 34 years retiring
in 1990 after a mild stroke.
He had served with honor for 34 years and left a record of 1,360
opinions -- a U.S. Supreme Court record exceeded only by that of
Justice William O. Douglas.
He lived seven more years, and died in a nursing home on July
24, 1997, at the age of 91.
His funeral service took place at Washington's St. Matthews Cathedral,
attended by the power brokers of the District of Columbia, and a
day after his coffin had been on display in the Great Hall of the
U. S. Supreme Court.
The Washington Post reported 2,300 Americans filed past the flag-draped
coffin on that day and paid silent tribute to the departed Justice.
At his death, the Harvard Law Bulletin, in its tribute to Brennan,
said "many of his opinions were masterpieces of reason and
A statement from Chief Justice Renquist at his death said that
"Justice Brennan played a major role in shaping America's Constitutional
A Washington Post editorial comment on Brennan's death was headed
"An American Hero."
A New York Times report at the time of Justice Brennan's death
said his death was attended with much ceremony -- the equivalent
of a State Funeral."
At Washington's St. Matthew Cathedral, after the funeral service,
his coffin was taken to the Arlington National Cemetery where he
was buried. His wife, Marjorie, who died in 1982, is buried there
with him. He became the eighth Justice buried there.
Brennan's legacy, rooted in his humble Newark beginnings, was
as a supporter of individual liberties and guarantees of justice
for the poor.
He was truly one of Newark's greatest sons.