BRISTOL — Although he has traveled the world as an educator, and serves in one of the highest ranking positions at one of the nation’s leading Catholic institutions of higher learning, Dr. James Brennan has never strayed too far from his very humble beginnings in the Ocean State.
Brennan, who has served for the last seven years as provost at The Catholic University of America, often returns to Bristol to spend the weekend with his wife Maria, whose own Portuguese roots run as strong as a vinho verde grape vine across a backyard trellis in this quaint city by the bay with a staunch Iberian pedigree.
Maria has returned to the Ocean State for the time being to care for her 96-year-old mother, who still lives on her own nearby, but travels to visit her husband in the Washington, D.C. area, where he resides in a separate apartment of the home owned by one of his two daughters (both St. Philomena School graduates) and her husband, who live there with his three grandchildren.
Brennan has the commute down to a science. On Mondays, he’s awake and exercising by 4 a.m., and by dawn, he’s usually aboard a Southwest Airlines flight to Baltimore Washington International Airport, where he retrieves the car he parked there at the garage on Friday on his way north.
He doesn’t seem to mind the travel, and he soon learned that he was not alone; many Rhode Islanders commute to the nation’s capital in similar fashion each week.
Born in Providence to a father who was an orphan, and a French-Canadian mother, Brennan was raised in Warwick. An uncle on his mother’s side became a Marist priest, after going to college on the G.I. Bill.
“I came from a very poor family, but I had the opportunity to attend Providence College,” Brennan said.
Inspired by how his uncle pursued a higher education — and calling — as a result of his pursuit of knowledge, Brennan sought to see how far he could go in the pursuit of excellence.
With his uncle’s help, he applied to Providence College and was accepted, describing the experience as “eye opening.”
“I just never knew that world existed,” he said.
He majored in history at first — until he found the discipline a bit tedious, before deciding to switch to psychology. But PC did not offer a psychology major at the time, so he began taking extra courses in it at Rhode Island College, where he met his future wife.
After graduating from PC in 1967, he pursued a master’s degree in experimental psychology at the University of Dayton (Ohio).
“I was always broke,” he recalled of the life of a grad student.
He enjoyed the research aspect of the discipline, and after earning his master’s in 1972, he decided to stay in Ohio and pursue a Ph.D. at Kent State University, a decision that would change his life forever.
Shortly after noon on May 4, 1970, as a grad student and teacher at the university, Brennan wanted to show his solidarity with students who were protesting United States military involvement in Cambodia near the end of the Vietnam War on what he recalls as a “beautiful, but breezy day.”
“I was part of a group handing out leaflets,” he said. Adjacent to the parking lot where he was distributing the leaflets, a crowd of students estimated at about 2,000 gathered on a grassy knoll to protest.
Soon after, various companies of the state’s National Guard arrived at the scene, and in an attempt to disperse the students, tear gas canisters were fired.
“A lot of them were rubbing their eyes,” Brennan recalls.
He remembers hearing the shots fired at the students by the guardsmen, who later said they thought the students had fired upon them first.
In all, 13 students were shot. Of those, four died.
Brennan recognized one of the four as one of the students in a class he had taught there.
“I was with him when he died. It was really awful. It was such a waste,” he remembers.
Brennan’s final two years at Kent State were uneventful, and left the school in 1972 with a Ph.D. in hand and enough solemn memories to last a lifetime. He said he rarely speaks about the incident unless he is asked about it.
He and Maria and their young family left Ohio in 1972, and Brennan would go on to spend the next 20 years in a variety of positions in the psychology field and academia at the State University of New York, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Loyola University in Chicago and Towson University in Maryland, where he served as provost and vice president for academic affairs.
During that time, Brennan also served as a visiting scientist in Poland, a Congressional Science Fellow and a Senior Research Fulbright Fellow.
He joined Catholic University as provost in April 2007.
He said that students at Catholic University, the national university of the Catholic Church in the United States, which operates with the approval of the Vatican, are very fortunate that they have access to a high quality education rooted in church tradition.
“We have a beautiful, rich heritage of a Catholic education that’s there,” Brennan said.
Asked if he feels students are overscheduled and overcommitted today compared to when he was a student, he offers some insight into how students are becoming conditioned much earlier on to leading overextended lifestyles.
“My 8-year-old granddaughter has had play dates for five years,” he quips.
“Her social calendar is more full than mine.”