Celebrating the life of Mel Brenner

By Walter Ruby

Eleven months ago, I had the privilege of traveling with Mel Brenner to Rhode Island for the reunion of the 87th U.S. Infantry Division in which he served during World War II. The trip was an uplifting experience that afforded me the opportunity to get to know in a deeper way than I ever had before my favorite uncle from childhood—a warm, funny, charming and inspirational man who heartily enjoyed myriad aspects of life while dedicating himself to making the world a better and saner place.

Sadly, Mel succumbed to cancer at the end of May (see obit from Newsday) and on Thursday June 27, I took part in his memorial service at the Jefferson’s Ferry Retirement community where he lived his last three years. The event, which drew well over 100 people, was a bittersweet and uplifting celebration of Mel’s life, with much laughter and love mixed with a great sense of loss that also brilliantly channeled his uniquely eclectic essence. For this, Mel’s three daughters, Janis Brenner, Amy Schettini and Leslie Brenner, and Janis’ husband Mitchell Bogard, who devoted weeks to the putting together of the complicated multi-media production, deserve great credit. 

The event included a moving dance performance by Janis entitled Where-How-Why Trilogy, which seemed go head-on at the great existential issues of life, love and death; an acapella performance of one of Mel’s favorites, Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Michelle Rosen, a lifelong friend of Janis’ who used to sing folk songs with her as teenagers back in the late ‘60s; and remarks on Mel’s life by family members and close friends, including Mitchell, Janis, Sid Wenokor, Leigh Steinman (Leslie’s daughter), Amy Schettini, Daniel Schettini (Amy’s son), Elaine Rosler, Orrin Dow, myself and Leslie Brenner, followed by presentation of a comprehensive and inspiring photo-montage video on Mel’s life, which will hopefully be presented on this forum as well.

Mel’s beloved wife Sandy who sat in the front row in her wheelchair, was not well enough to speak, but she appeared deeply moved by the event and profoundly consoled by the coming together of family and friends to celebrate Mel’s life.

A few things came up at the memorial service I hadn’t known about Mel. One was that he had created a rich lode of stories about two vaguely leprechaunish boys named Alfie and George who lived under a mailbox, which he used to entertain his children and grandchildren as they were growing up. Listening to Amy, Leslie and her daughter Leigh share memories of those stories gave one a poignant sense of how Mel transmitted a sense of joy and wonder to small children, as did a retelling of some of Mel’s favorite jokes in spot-on fashion by 11-year-old Daniel Schettini, who brought to the performance the polish and precocious savoir faire he has acquired as a child actor in LA.

Another highlight was Leslie’s reading of a list Mel compiled on his 75th birthday of what he had learned in life ranging from the tongue-in-cheek (“numbering your white socks ensures equality and fairness” or “push ‘print’ if you expect a computer to reproduce what is on the screen”) to the profound (“watching the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean and seeing the bluefish jump is one of life’s great experiences”) and something he learned all-too-literally at a young age (“when the bullets are coming at you, stay very low”).

In the poignant remarks of Amy, Leslie and Janis and the grandchildren, the portrait of Mel that emerged was of a Renaissance man who, even after his early retirement from his teaching career in his mid-50s, stayed busy and engaged with the world through involvement in good causes like building the Democratic Party in Nassau County and protecting basic constitutional rights for present and future generations through his leadership in the Long Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet Mel also took the time in Leslie’s words “to sit back and just be,” deeply enjoying the things in life that made him happy—whether it was riding his bike several times across France and England, fishing on the south shore of Long Island, savoring Dixieland jazz and the Weavers, or whittling walking sticks and whimsical creatures from wood that many of his family and friends (including me) attached to their car dashboards as good-luck talismans. And of course, Mel enriched countless lives by sharing his joie de vivre with everyone around him, first and foremost, with his beloved family.

Mel, we will miss you deeply but go forward inspired by the example of someone who lived life to the fullest and, as Leslie put it, “truly earned this rest.”