Lenny Skutnik is a hero. On January 13, 1982, Lenny jumped into the icy waters of the Potomac in Washington, D.C., to save Priscilla Tirado, a passenger on the ill-fated Air Florida plane that had just crashed into the river. She, according to an eyewitness, had tried to swim to shore, but several times went under. Finally, she caught hold of a rope lowered from a rescue helicopter, but, being too weak and cold to maintain her grip, went under one last time.
The eyewitness said that he was horrified by the fact that he was watching a woman die. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, came Lenny Skutnik. Skutnik, who had started out as a bystander on the shoreline, grabbed the drowning Tirado and got her safely to shore. There were 79 people on that plane. Five survived, and thanks to Lenny Skutnik, Priscilla Tirado was one of them.
When I heard this story recounted by the eyewitness on Sunday evening the 200 young men – dressed in blazers and ties – who were with me sat on the edges of their seats in hopes that Lenny would be able to save the drowning woman. It was as if we were eyewitnesses ourselves, and that is exactly what a great story teller does – he places the audience in the event.
That great story teller is Jim Brennan ’85: soccer coach, theology teacher, department chairperson, and mentor to so many of our students. Jim was not in the Nation’s Capital on that icy January day, but home from school because of an illness. He watched the news coverage live, and he recounted the events that he had witnessed on the screen as if they were happening in front of all of us as we sat in the Carfagna Family Magis Athletic Center and listened to Jim give the Dr. Michael Pennock ’64 Memorial Lecture.
And in telling that story, and several others throughout his talk, Jim honored the namesake of the Saint Ignatius version of the “last lecture” in a way that none of the seniors in the audience could even fathom. Fr. Raymond Guiao, S.J. ’82, Mr. Casey Yandek ’95, Mr. Joe Popelka ’84, Dr. Anthony Fior ’02 – the “old boys” in the room – were given a masterful glimpse into our own pasts, as well as a reaffirmation of the incredible influence that Doc Pennock still has at his Alma Mater.
In my opening remarks on Sunday evening, I noted that the Class of 2020 felt the gentle hand of Doc whenever they came across one of his many former students on campus. No one has a bigger “coaching tree” than Doc, and there is no greater example of a disciple who has taken the lessons of the master to heart and has built upon them with such success as Jim Brennan.
In his introduction of Jim, Matthew McLaughlin ’20 made the class aware of what every Wildcat soccer player already knows – Jim’s motivational talks make Knute Rockne look like a rank amateur. Some of these pre-game talks have made their way to the Internet, but they simply can’t convey what it is like to be there, in the moment of a big game like a State Championship, and hear Jim’s voice go from almost inaudible to a crescendo wherein one fears for the opponent.
That same intensity of purpose, and commitment to getting it just right, is also a hallmark of Jim’s teaching, and it is why the members of the Class of 2020 chose him as their speaker for this event that, when they voted, did not have the poignancy that it carried on Sunday evening. No one could have guessed that the first Sunday in May, the traditional date for the lecture, would come and go without the seniors gathering to hear Jim Brennan’s words of wisdom. No one could have predicted that the lecture would be delivered four months to the day since the seniors last sat in a classroom at Saint Ignatius.
Several months before Lenny Skutnik had his 15 minutes of fame, a young graduate of St. Charles School began sitting in the first row of my eighth period class in 227 Loyola Hall. I was a first-year teacher trying my best to imitate my hero Mike Pennock, and let’s just say that the results were mixed. But I was keen enough to take note that, even among the incredibly talented guys in homeroom 1G, the St. Charles Wildcat – James Guy Brennan – stood out.
I am grateful to the Class of 2020 for recognizing the stand-out qualities of Jim Brennan, and therefore allowing me to hear my former student do what he does best – inspire. He instilled in us, as his words always do, the desire to do great things, no matter how large or small, and to be our best selves for the greater glory of God. He challenged all in the room to be heroes, and in doing so cemented his place among the heroes in the pantheon of Saint Ignatius High School.