Appreciation: Remembering John “Butch” Brennan, The City of Chelsea’s Last Mayor

John J. ‘Butch’ Brennan Jr., who served as the last mayor of Chelsea for two terms in 1988 to 1991 before the city went into receivership, died Monday after a lengthy illness. He was 76.

Mr. Brennan symbolized that anything is possible in the arena of politics with the right mix of hard work, integrity, honor, and a belief in oneself that can you help improve the lives of residents with your decisive actions and deeds.

Mr. Brennan was a bartender at Ryan’s Tavern on Fifth Street when he decided to enter Chelsea politics. Friends and bar patrons urged him to run for public office, convinced that the tall, personable, straight-talking common man could help Chelsea become a better city.

Voters responded in record numbers to Mr. Brennan’s candidacy. He topped the ticket twice in alderman-at-large races and then decided to run against incumbent mayor Thomas Nolan in 1987. He won that election and took office in January, 1988, for the first of his two terms in office.

Michael Patrick Brennan, son of John “Butch” Brennan and Kathleen Brennan, was seven years old when his father decided to run for mayor.

“I definitely have some memories of the mayoral campaigns,” said Michael. “His stickers had a black background and Brennan was written in Kelly green.”

Mr. Brennan ran a high-voltage, high-visibility campaign. The people responded enthusiastically to the towering, 6-foot-4-inch candidate who could relate well to the everyday plight and basic needs of Chelsea residents.

“I remember every Saturday morning holding signs across from the Central Fire Station,” said Michael. “Every day my father would come home from work, eat dinner early and we’d go door to door, knocking on everyone’s door just so he could introduce himself and say that he’s there for the common person. He wanted to listen to what people wanted from a mayor.”

Brennan was answerable and accessible to residents who rallied around him, admiring this new type of politician who was one of them.

“My father would take me to the park to play catch and someone would drive by and get out of their car and say, ‘Mayor Brennan, I’m having a problem with this’ and the next day, my father would try and address it, whether it was calling the city workers to fix a pothole in front of someone’s house or something else. He just listened and he cared about people and that’s why he was so beloved.”

No matter was too big or too small for  Mayor Brennan.

“There was one elderly woman who couldn’t get the newspaper anymore – I remember my father dropping the paper off at her house. He would go out of his way to deliver the newspaper on his way home from work,” said Michael. “That meant the world to her.”

Michael Patrick recalled that his stepbrother, Robert Small, also helped out immensely with their father’s campaigns and during his service as mayor. “He used to go with my dad down to the projects and help residents with their repairs. He’d tell Robert to bring his camera and he’d follow him, take pictures, and document everything.”

Kathleen Brennan, a strikingly elegant first lady of Chelsea, would assist in beautification projects throughout the city. “My mother and dad would drive around town watering the plants at nights,” recalled Michael. “My mother took a lot of pride in that.”

With the city facing difficult financial times, Mayor Brennan tried to convince residents to vote in favor of an override of Proposition 2 ½.

“My father would walk around door to door with this can of coffee,” remembered Michael. “My father’s point was that the cost of the can of coffee is what you’d be paying once a month in taxes and that it would help the school system and he wouldn’t have to lay off firefighters and police officers. But Proposition 2 ½ lost big time. The residents turned it down. They didn’t want to do it. That’s when he reached out to the state to help Chelsea. My father thought that was the way to put the city he loved back on track to recovery after all those years of difficult financial circumstances. He pretty much gave away his job as mayor for the city he loved.”

Michael Patrick graduated from Saint Rose School, Malden Catholic High School, and Stonehill College. He played in the Chelsea Little League and for Jimmy Manzo’s Knickerbockers in the CYBL.

Tall (6-feet, 3 inches) like his father, Michael and his wife, Meghan, have two daughters.

“People still ask me if I’m related to Butch Brennan,” said Michael. “So many people call him a hero. It just makes me so proud. He did a lot for a lot of people. He was respected. It’s different when your son loves you, but when people that aren’t related to you care about you, it just makes you proud.”

A Loving Younger Brother William “Biff” Brennan

William “Biff” Brennan, Chelsea High Class of 1971, was nine years the junior to his only brother, John “Butch” Brennan, Chelsea High Class of 1962. He said this past Monday was a difficult day in the Brennan house.

“I really had a bad day when Michael Patrick called me with the news,” said Biff. “But I have a lot of personal friends in life and they’ve been calling and texting me and getting me through it. I appreciate their condolences, but this is a big loss for me.”

Biff recalled that Butch was the best man at his wedding when he married Claudia Nowicki, a popular member of the Chelsea High School Class of 1976. Biff and Claudia have been married for 30 years.

Biff said his brother suffered a heart attack in September, 2019. He recovered and was doing well this summer but his condition deteriorated in the past few months.

“He was a great brother,” said Biff. “He was always there for me. I tried to be the same for him through the politics and the other things in life.”

The sons of the late John J. Brennan Sr. and Eileen (Ryan) Brennan, Biff Brennan and John J. Brennan Jr. grew up on Walnut Street across from the Williams School.

Biff Brennan took an active role in his brother’s campaigns. “I wrote some of the political advertisements,” said Biff. “My brother never lost an election. He topped the ticket in 1983 and 1985 and won for mayor in 1987 and 1989. Being mayor is a tough job. He tried to do a good job and I think he did.”

Mayor John J. “Butch” Brennan Jr. will always occupy a place of royalty and respect in the annals of Chelsea. He made a tough decision at a pivotal point in the city’s history and the city is now better for it.

Biff Brennan said the family will hold a memorial observance for his brother in the spring of 2021.

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