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Profile: Mimi Brennan, teacher, volunteer, inspiration

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Mimi Brennan with granddaughter Kara keeping an eye on her from the end table.

Mimi Brennan with granddaughter Kara keeping an eye on her from the end table.

Mimi Brennan is a woman in charge.

Directing a visitor to make herself comfortable, she said, “Sit anywhere. Just not on the pinecones.”

Mimi was feeling provocative, one minute threatening to smoke a cigarette, the next showing off a series of yoga moves she learned in Jean Lawless’s class at the Silver Circle Social Club. “I’m 85 and look what I can do,” she said.

An Island mover and shaker for over 30 years, she’s been at the center of volunteer life with the Senior Citizens Foundation of Shelter Island, the Silver Circle Social Club, the League of Women Voters and Mashomack Preserve among others. She has written the Island Seniors column for the Reporter for over 16 years. In 2005, Mimi was honored with the Shelter Island Lions Club Citizenship Award.

Born in Brooklyn in 1929, she grew up in Valley Stream, seven years older than her sister Sue, and 12 years older than brother Michael.

She remembered listening to the radio with her parents when Franklin Roosevelt said the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and the day would “live in infamy.”

Her mother, Agnes Gross, was “a tough old bird,” she said. “She had a lot of great sayings. If you sneezed she’d say, ‘Your brains are dusty.’”

Mimi claims she caught the eye of her future husband, James F. Brennan Jr., when she appeared in a second grade play at St. Agnes School, and fourth grader Jay (as she called him) remarked to a friend, “Oh, isn’t she cute.” They didn’t date until high school, and shortly thereafter he enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II, shipping out to the Pacific.

Mimi and Jay married in July of 1951 in Rockville Centre on a Saturday and “went away” that afternoon to the Shelter Island home of Mimi’s Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Arthur who had offered their summer cottage for the honeymoon. Gertrude and Arthur arrived the next day, to the surprise of the newlyweds. “We thought we’d have a week at least,” she said.

Nine months later, their first child, James F. Brennan III was born. Elected to the New York Assembly in 1984, he has served for over 30 years, representing the 44th District in Brooklyn.

Their second child, William, born in 1962, served in the Army, studied Russian at the Monterey Language School in California and now teaches social studies and Russian in New Jersey at Sparta High School. His 13-year-old daughter, Kara, said Mimi, “is the light of my life.”

For two decades, starting in 1963, Mimi taught in the New York City public schools, first as a substitute teacher at Washington Irving High School near Union Square. Although trained as an English teacher, she decided to teach speech therapy, and found she enjoyed helping the children with lisps, stutters and other impairments.

Her parents had a summer place on the Island, and she told Jay they should, too. When they met with the owner of a Westmoreland Farm property that was for sale, “We said we would like to buy, but we don’t have money,” Mimi said. “He said, ‘That doesn’t matter because you are a nice Irish family.’”

Summers and weekends, the Brennans inhabited a place crawling with children, many from very large families. “The people in the boathouse had eight, the Careys had 14 kids, we had two, my friend Christine had five,” she said. “The children moved like a pack. They would start out in the morning at one house and move from one to another over the course of the day.”

In the early 1970s, Mimi, Jay, their son Bill and an enormous cat named Godzilla moved to Tokyo when, she said, Jay was Asia editor for Time-Life Books.

It was an adventure for the whole family, especially Bill, who appeared on a Japanese Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box. She said, “He was a handsome guy, and the Japanese wanted him to promote ‘Breakfast American-Style.’”

During the years in Tokyo, she gave English conversation lessons to the Tokyo editors who were her husband’s colleagues and reveled in the life of the American ex-pat community. She recalled going with a friend to see tennis matches between the Japanese crown prince and the Russian ambassador. “The Russian ambassador was quite heavy and got red from exertion and my friend and I called him the pink pig,” she said. “He always lost.”

In Tokyo, she believed her teenage son was going to school every day, until she received a call from a policeman who said, in shaky English, “I have the body.” Mimi and Jay rushed in a panic to the Akishima Police Station where they found their son chatting with the police.

He had been picked up, along with two friends, for riding a motorcycle without a helmet. Mimi said, “Bill had spent most of his high school years in Japan in the coffeehouses and I didn’t know it.”

Jay’s work was high-powered and his health failed. In 1979, their time in Tokyo ended abruptly when he suffered cardiac arrest and was diagnosed with end stage renal failure. She brought him home to New York. Jay died a few months later at the age of 55.

Mimi did not remarry. “One husband,” she said, “is enough.”

In the early 1980s, she taught speech and conversation skills in adult education classes in East Harlem. Although the goal was to teach skills that would lead to better jobs, many of the students couldn’t read. “But teaching reading wasn’t what the people in charge wanted us to do,” she said.

Unsatisfied with teaching only conversation, she said, “One student had come up from the South where she had actually picked cotton. She wanted to go for job interviews, but I thought she could learn to read. So I began teaching them to read. You never say somebody can’t do something.”

Mimi doesn’t call her work volunteering. She calls it payback. “People need to pay back for the life they have lived,” she said. “For the beauty of the place where they have lived. They owe it to the world.”

Since 1985, Mimi has been active at Mashomack as a board member and volunteer. Working at the Visitor Center on Sunday morning is still her favorite “payback,” especially when it means talking to the youngest visitors. “I don’t tell them the preserve is 2,039 acres because they don’t know what an acre is. I tell them to walk in the woods, to watch for the birds, to look out for the turtles. It is my sincere wish that they will learn about nature by walking here.”

Well into her 80s, Mimi participated in the annual Turkey Plunge, a fundraiser to benefit the Shelter Island Public Library, appearing several years in a red wig, a body stocking and a bikini and wading into the frigid waters at Louis’ Beach right up to her ankles.

Now that’s payback.