James Brennan, a Chicago native and Toledo businessman whose gruff manner, sharp wit, encyclopedic memory, and generosity defined his leadership style during three stints as chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party, died early yesterday of brain cancer. He was 77.
Mr. Brennan led the county GOP three times, first winning election as chairman in February, 1977. His first tenure was his longest, lasting six years. He also served from 1990 to 1992, and again for 13 months beginning in May, 1997. In a county dominated by Democrats, he met with mixed results.
As chairman, he mingled with presidents, senators, and governors, winning appointments to state boards and commissions, including the Ohio Turnpike Commission. In Lucas County, he was a big fish in a small political pond, opining on a wide range of topics and donating generously to Republican - and sometimes Democratic - candidates.
Born in Chicago in 1926, he attended public elementary and secondary schools there. As a young child during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he sold magazines to help his family make ends meet, said his daughter, Christine.
He went to Drake University in Des Moines on a football scholarship - he was a lineman - but left school after a year to join the Army. He served after World War II during the occupation of Europe, attaining the rank of sergeant.
After returning home, he studied at the University of Chicago before embarking on a business career.
His career in politics started shortly afterward when he and a group of other Chicago Republicans tried to derail the budding career of Richard J. Daley. Daley defeated their candidate for mayor, Robert Merriam, in 1955 in Daley's first campaign for the office he would hold for more than two decades.
Mr. Brennan moved to Toledo and, in September, 1957, established Freeman Material Handling, Inc., a forklift sales and service company, now called Brennan Industrial Truck, Inc., and run by his son, James H. Brennan, Jr., and son-in-law Thomas Backoff, since Dec. 31, 1995.
His son credited Mr. Brennan's emphasis on “discipline, discipline, discipline” in developing and following a business plan as the reason the forklift firm continues to be a success.
Before becoming Republican Party chairman for the first time, he gained experience as a candidate, winning a seat on the Ottawa Hills Village Council in 1975. He served until 1979.
His only other run for public office was a failed attempt in 1992 to win a seat on the Lucas County Board of Commissioners, losing to Democrat Mark Pietrykowski.
Also on the Republican ticket that year for another seat on the board of commissioners was Dan Brennan - no relation - who lost his race to Democrat incumbent Bill Copeland.
“The thing I learned about Jim Brennan was, despite his gruff facade, he was a kind and caring man,” Dan Brennan said.
When Maggie Thurber, now a Lucas County commissioner, was considering a 1990 run for state representative against longtime Democratic incumbent Barney Quilter, she said Mr. Brennan gave her the inspiration she needed. But, Ms. Thurber said, she's not sure that was his intention.
“When I first went to him and told him what I wanted to do, he told me to `go play with the other young Republicans, little girl.' Whether he realized it or not, it made me angry. It was the best advice he could have given me.”
Ms. Thurber has since knocked off four well-known Democratic opponents.
Mr. Brennan was known for running the local GOP with a strong hand, but also for sometimes making agreements with Democratic Party leaders when they both believed it served their interests.
His warm relations with Democratic leaders stretched beyond politics.
In the 1980s, while Mr. Brennan was sparring publicly with Democratic Party mainstays Bill Boyle and James Ruvolo during heated political campaigns, they formed a business partnership that turned a tidy profit.
Mr. Boyle remembered Mr. Brennan as an honest, forthright man who, although a “true Republican to the core,” would help his friends regardless of their political stripes.
“I knew that if I picked up the phone and said, `Jim, I need this' or `Can you help me with that,' I knew it would be done,” Mr. Boyle said.
Bernadette Noe, the current county GOP chairman, called Mr. Brennan the party's patriarch who always offered good advice. “I think of him as heavy-handed and warm-hearted,” she said.
Mr. Brennan first took the reins of the GOP from Harley Dunbar, who in the 1970s presided over a “triumvirate” of leadership with businessman John Straub and Andy Douglas, the retired Ohio Supreme Court justice who at that time was a Toledo City Councilman.
Former mayor Carty Finkbeiner ran for Toledo mayor in 1979 as a Republican with the support of Mr. Brennan, a campaign he lost. He said Mr. Brennan was an energetic supporter of the community and a father figure to many, regardless of party affiliation.
“Nobody had more zest for life than Jim Brennan. He was a true son of Chicago who brought all of that confidence and zest to Toledo,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.
Mr. Brennan was a member of the Ohio Board of Regents, a GOP precinct committeeman, a delegate to Republican conventions, a member of the Ohio Republican Party central committee, the Toledo Rotary Club, and a longtime member of the Lucas County Board of Elections, which he chaired for several two-year terms. He was also president of the Toledo Opera Association, and served on the boards of the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries of Northwest Ohio, and St. Vincent Hospital.
He was a trustee of Defiance College and a director of Swan Creek Retirement Village.
Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for the USA Today newspaper and a network television sports analyst, said her father never brought his political battles - and its public scars - home with him.
“When he came through the door and closed it behind him, he shut out the world of politics,” she said. The family would talk extensively about current events at the dinner table, a practice she said instilled in her a hunger for news.
Mr. Brennan is survived by a brother, Robert; sister, Peggy Brewer; son, James Jr.; daughters, Christine, Kate, and Amy, and seven grandchildren. His wife, Betty Jane, died last year.
Family will receive friends tomorrow and Thursday after 4 p.m. at Walker Funeral Home, 5155 West Sylvania Ave. A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. Friday in Christ Presbyterian Church, 4225 West Sylvania Ave.
The family suggests tributes to the Old Newsboys Goodfellows Association, Christ Presbyterian Memorial Fund, or Toledo Rotary Foundation.