LANSING, Mich. — Thomas E. Brennan Sr. died peacefully on Saturday in Lansing, surrounded by family. He was 89.
Brennan was the founder of the Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing. He was also the 81st Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court and the youngest Supreme Court Chief Justice in the history of the state of Michigan. More than any of these significant career accomplishments, Brennan treasured his role as sponsor and mentor to generations of lawyers who attended Cooley Law School, his loving family, and his lifelong friends. To know Brennan was to know his intellect, creativity, charm, quick wit and irrepressible sense of humor always tinged with an Irish glint.
“Tom Brennan was a giant in legal education,” said WMU-Cooley’s Interim President Jeffrey Martlew. “More than 20,000 WMU-Cooley graduates owe him a debt of gratitude for pursuing his vision in creating a law school focused on teaching knowledge, skills, and ethics. Beyond that, Tom had a genuine love for people. He was a terrific mentor and a true friend, and I shall miss him.”
Born on May 27, 1929 in Detroit, Brennan graduated from Detroit Catholic Central High School, where he excelled in forensics. He attended the University of Detroit and earned a law degree from the University of Detroit Law School in 1952. In 1951, he married Pauline Mary (Polly) Weinberger, with whom he had six children. Immensely proud of his large Irish Catholic clan, Brennan often involved family in his various professional pursuits, from political campaigns to the inception of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. He was quick to credit Polly’s invaluable support for virtually all of his success.
Even so, success did not come easily in the early years of Brennan’s political career. He failed two attempts as a candidate for the Michigan House of Representatives in 1952 and 1954, and lost to John Dingell, Jr. for the U.S. Representative from Michigan’s 15th congressional district in December, 1955.
In 1953, he joined the law firm of Waldron, Brennan, Brennan, and Maher, with whom he worked until 1961, when he was elected to a seat on the Common Pleas Bench. In 1963, he was appointed by Michigan Governor George W. Romney to the Wayne County Circuit Bench, and in 1964 he was elected to that same position.
In 1966, at the urging of Governor Romney, Brennan sought the nomination of the Republican Party as Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. He won the nomination, and the election. In 1969 and 1970, Brennan served as Chief Justice, the youngest Justice to serve in that capacity.
While serving on the Bench, Brennan received numerous requests for law school recommendations which inspired his vision for a new, non-profit law school in Lansing, Michigan. Noting that many qualified students were refused law school admission, he was determined to eradicate academic elitism and make legal education accessible to all capable students. Brennan incorporated Thomas M. Cooley Law School in 1972 with the belief that “An educated citizenry that understands the law is critical to the strength and progress of the nation.” Brennan left the Supreme Court on December 6, 1973, to dedicate his professional career to the fledgling law school and ensure its success. Cooley Law School’s founding president until 1975, Brennan also served as its first dean until 1978, when he again became its president, the office he held for 23 more years.
Under his magnetic leadership, Cooley Law School grew from its initial class of 76 students to become the largest accredited law school in the nation. Known for ingenuity and perseverance, Brennan designed and instituted numerous unprecedented innovations, including the law school’s year-round schedule that allows three new incoming classes each year. He is credited with founding the Cooley Legal Authors Society, the Student Bar Association, the Scholastic Review Board and the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review. He also composed the law school’s alma mater.
During his tenure at Cooley Law School, Brennan ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator from Michigan in 1976, and for Lieutenant Governor of Michigan in 1982. Brennan retired from Cooley Law School in 2002. The Thomas E. Brennan Law Library in Lansing is named in his honor.
Combining insight and levity, Brennan was a captivating orator and engaging storyteller. He authored a self-published novel entitled “The Bench” in 2000, a memoir called “Starting a Law School” in 2007, a book entitled “The Article V Amendatory Constitutional Convention: Keeping the Republic in the Twenty-First Century” in 2014, and a blog, “oldjudgesays,” which ran from 2008 to 2017. New ideas energized Brennan, whether he was striving to establish a United States Constitutional Convention or trying to develop an American Golf League. An avid golfer, Brennan made a hole-in-one on five lucky occasions.
“I can only say how lucky and blessed I was to have had the mentorship and encouragement of one of the greatest men that I have ever known,” said Lawrence P. Nolan, chair of WMU-Cooley’s board of directors and recent president of the State Bar of Michigan. “Those of us who knew Judge Brennan understood that there were no limits to his dreams. His dreams became our dreams. His dreams made it possible to dream and succeed. Tom’s greatest dreams of living a life that was full of grace, truth, and spiritual beliefs inspired all of us to become better people and live fuller lives.”
He will be deeply missed by his beloved Polly and their children: Thomas, Jr. (Julie), Margaret (David) Radelet, John (Catherine), William (Lisa), Marybeth (James) Hicks, and Ellen (Peter) Campbell; nineteen grandchildren; nine great-grandchildren; siblings Raymond (Loretta) of East Lansing, Michigan, Mary (James) Bernard of Fraser, Colorado, and Sally Giraud of Westland, Michigan, and sister-in-law Patricia Brennan of Rochester Hills, Michigan. He is preceded in death by parents Joseph and Jeanette Brennan and brother Joseph Terrence, Jr.
Details about memorial service will be shared once they are available.