By: Amanda Coulson
An alumnus of the class of 1969, Frank Brennan walked away from Penn State University with two degrees and countless memories and life lessons. Frank grew up in Philadelphia and attended Penn State Abington – then called Ogontz – in 1965-67. He moved on to University Park for the next four years earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in journalism.
The Army ROTC graduate served on active duty and in the National Guard reaching the grade of major before finally putting the uniform away because of time constraints of family and career. Career-wise, he spent time as a print reporter, a radio-tv reporter (including U-Park’s student radio station and the two commercial stations in town), and in a small ad agency. Ultimately he answered a blind newspaper ad that led to a long career in the U.S. Postal Service.
He began as a public relations manager at its regional headquarters in Philadelphia, then moved on to Washington, DC, where he acted as the agency’s press secretary and later as vice president, Corporate Relations. He closed out his career as chief of staff to two postmasters general. “It all began at Penn State,” he said, “and I give a lot of credit to the professors I had.”
His called his time at Penn State Abington “a great experience. It was the first true time when as a student no one looks over your shoulder to make sure you are studying. You really have to discipline yourself.” While at Abington, Frank was fairly involved on campus as an editor of the student paper, on the ROTC rifle team, and the campus bowling team whose coach was a young phys-ed instructor, Wes Olsen.
“Ogontz,” Frank said, “began to smooth the edges off the Irish kid raised in the inner city.”
During his career he had to deal with different crises as a reporter and while with the Postal Service. At University Park, he covered the tragic murder of graduate student Betsy Aardsma over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 1969. “We were probably the first news organization to hear that something awful had happened,” said Brennan, then working at WMAJ, the only full time radio station in central Pennsylvania. Greg Miller, another Penn State grad who was the d.j., took the first calls and then they came to me in the newsroom.” The murder was never solved. Then two years Miller called Frank to say, “You have to get this book – ‘Murder in the Stacks.’ The author names the killer!” Brennan said author David DeKok’s evidence of who killed Aardsma is compelling. He will never come to trial since the alleged killer died in the early 2000s. “It’s a fascinating sad story,” he said.
Frank found difficult times while in the Postal Service as well. During the late 1980s, the Postal Service had a spate of workplace violence killings that put the term “going postal” in the lexicon. Each time, he and the postmaster general headed to the scenes. “Difficult sad situations,” he said. “The media always wanted to know what happened. But as I told them, there’s no way to rationalize an irrational act.”
Brennan earned a reputation within the bureaucracy of being cool in crisis situations. He moved up to vice president, Corporate Relations. He closed out his career serving as chief of staff to two postmasters general. Brennan said one of the major day-to-day challenges as chief of staff was keeping the boss focused. “The postmaster general has so many distractions, people vying for his time his attention. Your job is simply to help him do his job. It’s amazing how little things count – even at the top of organization.”
Offering advice to young graduates, he said there is one thing that students can learn today that will carry them well into the workplace: write a strong, clear issue memo – on one page! “Learn to do that in a company or organization and you will prove very valuable.”
He acknowledges that the today’s workplace is changing. “Regardless, have confidence in yourself and in your beliefs. Take risks. Don’t become part of the herd, taking a popular position and putting your own judgment aside. There will be times when you will come to a crossroads and you will have to turn away from the herd. Do it.”
Other advice for those getting ready to join the workplace: “Follow your intuition, your gut and value all the people you work with. Take time to listen and learn from the diversity of the people around you.”
We are Penn State proud to have Frank as an alumnus. And he too is Penn State proud to see all the great changes at Abington.
He resides in Annapolis, MD, with his wife and he is actively retired. He has two sons and five grandchildren. He is a board member of the Annapolis Arts Alliance, an active sailor and photographer (check out his website at http://www.brennanphotos.com), who plays a bad round of golf!