Remembering Our Founder

The Honorable Thomas E. Brennan, founder of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School and former Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, died peacefully surrounded by his loving family on Sept. 29, 2018 at the age of 89.

He has been called one of the most important innovators in legal education of the past 40 years. A visionary. A risk-taker. An “idea guy.” His legacy reaches far beyond the founding of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, rippling through the lives of more than 20,000 graduates of the institution he imagined back in 1972, touching even the lives of generations of people he never would meet.

Yet despite his many achievements in his professional career, including the significant contributions he made to the law school and the legal community in Michigan and beyond, Judge Brennan remained a humble man, prone to a self-deprecating humor that conveyed an awareness of his place in history. As he stated in WMU-Cooley's 40th anniversary special edition of the Benchmark, “If I'm remembered by my grandchildren, that'll make me happy.”

Celebration of Life

In fact, he will be remembered by many. Judge Brennan was honored at a funeral Mass on Oct. 4 at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in East Lansing, attended by nearly 600 people. His six children and 19 grandchildren all participated in the ceremony, which also included eight priests concelebrating the liturgy, led by Rev. Michael Murray, who noted the Judge's passing “left an ache today on many hearts.”


In his homily, Father Mike reflected on the many roles Judge Brennan played throughout his life, remarking that the common thread in each position and in every season was his enduring faith.

“Tom Brennan was a lawyer. He was a judge. A founder. A friend. A proud alum of Detroit Catholic Central (CC). And always, above all else, he was a husband and father. And not a moment of any of that was untouched by his deep and abiding Catholic faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“As a founder, he was aware that you need to know what you are founding. And he never wavered in the vision that the Thomas M. Cooley Law School would be a place that granted full opportunity to men and women willing to work their side of the bargain. And he understood that any building requires the anchor of a proper foundation. It is expressed in the law school motto that he and Father Mac [Monsignor Jerome MacEachin] drew from the writings of our parish patron, St. Thomas Aquinas. In corde hominem est anima legis — the spirit of the law is in the human heart. Because it is. A loving Creator has imprinted deep within the human person a profound understanding of what is right, of what is true and beautiful and life-giving. This is the spirit of the whole law, if properly enacted, understood, and applied.

“The lawyer in him was nowhere more evident than in the long years of struggle with the ABA over the accreditation of Cooley. Reading through his account of that long slog, one is struck by the care and detail of his presentations. Again and again, he turned the ABA’s own rules back upon them. When he could have simply cried “Foul!” he instead would patiently point out one more instance of their failure to follow their own procedures. It was long and wearisome, but always illustrative of the lawyer’s craft.Brennan Desk HDR

“Eleven days ago, as he lay up in Hospice House, I mentioned CC ... which prompted Tom to sing for me, in a whispering but clear voice, the CC Alma Mater, with its timeless pledge to be “Men of Mary.” He then lay quietly for a moment before adding, “You know, the Cooley alma mater has the same tune.” When I offered the obvious – “Well, there’s a coincidence!” – his smile was mischievous.

“But above all, he was a husband and father. He often shared his view of Polly. It was quite simple: She is the best person in the whole world. As priests, we often need to remind married people that building a strong marriage is not only the best gift one can give a spouse, it’s also the best thing you can do for children. Even for friends and co-workers, because a strong, loving marriage allows men and women to sail forth each day, knowing who they are, and confident that a safe harbor awaits at the end of even the stormiest of days.”

Celebration of Family

Thomas Brennan, Jr., the eldest of the Brennan children and a graduate of Thomas. M. Cooley Law School, delivered a remembrance on behalf of the family. It included a blog post written by Judge Brennan entitled, "My Last Lecture."

“On behalf of my mother, Polly, my brothers John and Bill, my sisters Peggy Radelet, Marybeth Hicks and Ellen Campbell, and the 38 others who comprise our immediate family, I want to thank each of you for being with us to honor and celebrate the life of our beloved husband, father and grandfather, Tom Brennan. All of us, along with our extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins, are grateful for your presence here today.

“Most of you know Tom Brennan as a lawyer, a judge, a Michigan Supreme Court Justice, or as the founder, past president and dean emeritus of the Thomas Cooley Law School. Some of you are civic leaders and members of the legal community across the state of Michigan, and you’ve let us know of your respect and admiration for Dad throughout his long and illustrious career. We thank you for sharing your appreciation for his many contributions to the bench and bar.

“Many of you represent more than 20,000 Cooley Law School graduates from across the nation and around the world. Just think about that ... more than 20,000! Cooley was an idea my father shared with us in 1972 around the kitchen table at our family home just five doors from this church. It became an institution that has served to fulfill the professional dreams and aspirations of tens of thousands of individuals. Throughout the past several days, it has been most gratifying to hear from and speak with so many Cooley alumni whose lives have been impacted in such a positive way because of Tom Brennan’s foresight, creativity, and perseverance in establishing a law school in Lansing. You are his professional legacy; and he was enormously proud of each of you for your achievements and success.

“Others of you are dedicated Cooley Law School faculty and staff members who have been part of the school’s 46-year history, and who worked side by side with Dad to make the school a success. We’ve heard many of you express your gratitude for the vision and leadership that benefited you and your families.


“Many of you affectionately called Dad, “the Judge,” and enjoyed friendships built on mutual respect and kindness. Some
of you are Dad’s Detroit Catholic Central chums, or are longtime friends from across the state, political allies, golfing buddies, fellow parishioners, or admirers through your friendships with members of our large family. You’ve told us that Dad was “larger than life,” and that you were inspired by his charismatic personality, his keen intellect, the courage with which he expressed his convictions, and his allegiance to faith and family.

“To be sure, Tom Brennan left a lasting footprint. His efforts ultimately changed not only the lives of those he encountered through his many endeavors, but even the very landscape of the capital city in the state he loved so well.

“Yet, despite all of the noteworthy achievements of this great man, six of us were blessed to know Tom Brennan simply as 'Dad.'

“This past May, at a celebration of Dad’s 89th birthday, we six gathered together with Mom and Dad and our spouses, and, among other activities during the course of a long and memorable evening, we shared with Dad a list of 89 reasons why we love him. Some of us expressed unique explanations – for example, my brother-in-law Dave Radelet said he loved Dad because he was, “loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. In other words, you’re a Boy Scout!

“But for the most part, we mentioned several common traits and characteristics: Dad’s wit and wisdom; his incredible facility to forgive and forget; his extraordinary mind and inventiveness; his resilience in the face of failure; and his perseverance to pursue his dreams and goals. As a proud father, grandfather of 19, and great-grandfather of nine, Tom Brennan set an extraordinary example through his love, generosity, and commitment to our family.

“They say the best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother. If this is true, Tom Brennan was certainly one of the greatest fathers of all time. His devotion to our mother knew no limits. From the start of their courtship in 1947 as college freshmen at the University of Detroit, throughout a 67-year romance and marriage, until their final, tender moments together during these past days and weeks, Tom and Polly authored a remarkable story of enduring love. They gave each other the gift of being completely known and unconditionally accepted. They supported and protected one another, they challenged and celebrated each other, and they demonstrated to us what it means to build a life and a family on a strong foundation of faith in God.

“As most of you also know, in retirement my Dad was a prolific blogger, posting 444 essays between 2008 and 2017 on his site, OldJudgeSays. Often controversial, but always impassioned, Dad left us a treasure trove of material to remind us of his intellect, ingenuity, persistence, faith, and humor.

“One such blog, posted in February of 2010, was entitled, “My Last Lecture.”

“Inspired by the profound and moving 2007 video of the late Carnegie Mellon professor Randy Pausch, Dad imagined what sage advice and accumulated wisdom he would convey in his version of a seminal life lesson. It’s classic Tom Brennan, and with his permission, I share it with you today...

He wrote...

"Preparing to give a talk at Cooley Law School awhile back, the idea of a last lecture kept cropping up. In May, I will be 81 years old. I remember when my mother was 81. I gotta say, she was old.

When you get to be my age, you think a lot about death, but not the way you think about it when you’re forty or fifty. There’s no panic, no fear. When you get old, your friends die. And people treat you differently. Younger golfing buddies rake your sand traps and fix your divots.


And people listen to you; as though you have somehow gotten smarter just by living longer. I always prayed for wisdom. Now I read opinions I wrote forty years ago as a Supreme Court Justice and I marvel at how smart I was back then. I certainly don’t feel any wiser now. I sure wouldn’t want to take a bar examination this summer.

But I suppose there are some things that begin to sink in as the years go by. Some things you always knew become even more certain. For example, there’s my mantra about perseverance, progress and personal responsibility. It goes like this:

If you drop it, pick it up. If you spill it, wipe it up. If you forget it, go back and get it. If you break it, fix it. If you destroy it, replace it. If you owe it, pay it. If you did it, admit it.

Why? Because most of the forward progress we make in the game of life is just getting back to the line of scrimmage.

They say that dementia in an Irishman is when you forget everything but the grudge. Despite my Celtic heritage, I have had no room in my life for ill will toward anyone.

Besides, I think that hatred eats the hater. If you have a friend, it’s like having a relative. It never changes. Your friend is your friend. Period.


Forgiving feels good; forgetting feels better. Every hour, every minute spent seething over hurt feelings is an absolute waste of time. You can’t control the thoughtless, cruel, or mean-spirited things that other people do or say. You can control how you react to them. You can control your feelings. You are the only one who can make you feel good.

I’m a dreamer; always have been. Dreams demand attention. They demand action. You can’t just dream about a dream. You’ve gotta do something about it. If it doesn’t actually pan out – and many don’t – at least if you give it your best shot, you will earn some credits in the college of hard knocks.

Nothing in life worth having or doing will come to you unless you want it. Really want it. Valuable things in life demand
a high price. Whether it’s an education, a career, a marriage, a reputation, or anything else you set as a goal or let yourself dream about having or doing, it will not come to you unless you are willing to pay the price.

That price isn’t always money. Indeed, it rarely is. Usually the price is paid in sacrifice, in waiting, in patience, in perseverance, in starting over again and again, in believing and preparing, and in holding on when everyone tells you to let go.

I have often told my children and grandchildren that success is getting back up again. And so it is. But there is another dimension to success that is so axiomatic it rarely gets mentioned.

My father put it this way, “You know what’s right and you know what’s wrong. Do what’s right.”

Success comes by achieving or working tirelessly toward good, honorable, positive goals. Those are the dreams worth having, worth fighting for.

I have a dozen things on my plate. Things I want to do. Spend time with my darling wife and hear her laugh. Improve my golf game. Write a book or two. Promote golf as a team sport. Advocate for a convention to propose amendments to the United States Constitution. Travel. Visit my children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But these things don’t make me, won’t make me, can’t make me happy. Nothing you do, nothing you acquire, nothing you learn, or see, or experience will make you happy. Happiness comes from the inside.

I bring my happiness with me. I take it with me wherever I go. Happiness is a state of mind.

I sincerely hope to be happy on my death bed. The good Lord has blessed me with a long and healthy life, filled with love, achievement, friends, and beautiful moments. I thank God for the life He has given me.

At the end of it, I only hope it will be said of me that I fought the good fight, I finished the race, that I kept the faith, that I did my best and went out with courage and grace.

And that would be my last lecture. Thanks for listening." 

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This story originally appeared in the December 2018 edition of Benchmark Magazine.