Recalling a Newark Son Who Rose to Greatness....and His Father

by Nat Bodian

In the early 1900's an Irish immigrant from County Roscommon came to America and settled in Newark on 357 New Street.

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, Honorary Member."

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 craftsmanship."

A statement from Chief Justice Renquist at his death said that "Justice Brennan played a major role in shaping America's Constitutional law."

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.

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