There were no fancy graduation ceremonies when John Brenza first began teaching engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1944.
“It was wartime,” the veteran explained. “They rushed them through as fast as possible.”
Seven decades after he prepared Naval officers for service in the Pacific, 99-year-old John Brenza of Annapolis finally got to attend graduation, with all the pomp and circumstance of (relative) peacetime.
The academy could not confirm that John Brenza is its oldest surviving instructor, but “he’s certainly one of the oldest,” said Cmdr. Alana Garas, an academy spokesperson.
The idea to bring her father to Friday’s Naval Academy graduation came from Karen Somers, a Fallston resident and the oldest of John Brenza’s six children. Tim Brenza of Annapolis, the youngest, had the honor of bringing his father to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the ceremony.
“Nobody has said so exactly, but I gather this is some kind of a gift for me,” John Brenza said. “I thought it was great. Why not live it up?”
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, John Brenza enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserves while attending Case Western University. As an engineering student, he was allowed to complete his studies on an accelerated schedule, including summer courses, rather than be activated. He earned his degree in December of 1943, and never saw many of his classmates again.
“Most of them were sent immediately to the Pacific,” John Brenza said. “A few were retained here. I was among those few.”
“They were really kind of desperate for engineering instructors,” added Tim Brenza.
In January of 1944, John Brenza arrived in Annapolis to begin teaching in the department that was then called Marine Engineering. He taught officers about the latest in 1940s submarine warfare technology. The Navy even brought a small aircraft carrier and a submarine up the Chesapeake Bay for students and instructors.
“I took advantage of it,” John Brenza said, recalling the day a whale boat took him onboard an aircraft carrier even though it was sleeting.
Fortunately he and his fellow instructors did have some time for R&R. One summer afternoon his roommate came home and suggested they go for a swim in Mill Creek.
“He said, ‘Hey John, there are some girls out in the creek there. Want to go meet them?’” he recalled. “One of them became my wife, ultimately,”
John Brenza found love at first sight of Rheta Alice Carter’s bathing suit. “The thing that was so catching at the moment was the style of the bathing suit. At that time, they laced up the sides, with open mesh.”
He smiled and laughed warmly at the memory.
The couple eventually divorced. Rheta died Aug. 31, 2009; she was known as an active volunteer in Anne Arundel County.
When his three years of active duty were up in 1946, John Brenza says the Naval Academy asked him to stay and continue teaching, but he left the service to pursue his passion for metallurgical engineering. He worked for a series of smelting and refining companies in the mid-Atlantic, but always considered Annapolis home. He now lives at Atria Manresa, a senior community on the Severn River, and proudly notes that he has been retired, “more years than I worked.”
Whenever possible, Tim Brenza or his sister Pamela bring their father to the academy to attend concerts (”Oh Lordy,” he exclaimed, thinking of all the new buildings. The former Marine Engineering building was torn down to make room for Alumni Hall.)
Both John and Tim Brenza are ardent fans of organist Monte Maxwell, who occasionally gives virtuosic concerts at the Naval Academy Chapel. Before Friday, the last time John Brenza came to Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium was for a military band competition about 10 years ago.
John Brenza arrived at Friday’s graduation in a wheelchair, but argues that he can still walk about 50 feet at a time, if he rests in between strolls. For the most part, he was content to sit back and watch the rainy day ceremony, but he came prepared with aviator sunglasses in his breast pocket, along with four pens.
“The sign of an engineer,” he boasted, “I don’t have a decent pencil, so I carry several pens.” A white Navy baseball cap fended off the mist while he watched the pageantry, including a parade of faculty members in regalia, a procession he never experienced himself while teaching during World War II.
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“The fancy stuff had to go,” he recalled. “They taught them how to hold a gun.”
Once the stadium opened in 1959, graduation became a much grander affair, often with the Commander in Chief delivering the commencement speech. And truthfully, the chance to hear President Joe Biden was a big draw for the 99-year-old who first cast a ballot for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
“I’m all for him,” John Brenza said of Biden. “I’m a Republican, but I think greatly of this Democrat. I am ashamed of the current Republicans.”
He said he intended to change parties but hasn’t gotten around to completing the paperwork.
“You slow down a little bit when you get to my age; I use that as an excuse,” he said.
It’s full-steam ahead, however, when it comes to preparing for his centennial birthday on July 18.
“Two months to go before the big double O,” he said. “That’s an original phrase, but I can’t guarantee someone else hasn’t used it.”