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A Life Full of Second Acts

UNLV's oldest graduate finishes his degree after nearly seven decades.

Campus News  |  May 12, 2017  |  By Francis McCabe
J.J. Brennan in a UNLV cap

J.J. Brennan, 85, is the oldest member of UNLV's 2017 spring graduating class. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Creative Services)

When John Joseph Brennan, who goes by J.J., began earning his undergraduate degree in 1949 he learned an important lesson from a theater professor.

In theater, and in life, you have to adjust.

“With that in mind all problems are solvable,” said Brennan, who on Saturday will finally complete a 68-year journey for his bachelor of arts degree. The 85-year-old is the oldest UNLV graduate of the 2017 class, an accomplishment that was far more difficult than one might imagine.

A Chicago native, Brennan dreamed of becoming an actor and entertainer, a career he began pursuing as a theater major at Loyola University in the second city. After a few years, opportunity knocked and he began to land roles, including the lead part in a 1950s educational film called Snap Out of It.

Soon he began to bounce around. Brennan acted on Broadway with Buddy Ebsen and performed with Jerry Stiller. He tried hard to land roles in comedies, which he preferred over dramas.

Brennan’s burgeoning career took him around the country. He performed a Frank Sinatra-styled lounge act in Miami and eventually in Las Vegas. But breaks kept falling through. One big break ended abruptly when a Chesterfield cigarette television ad part he got was cancelled because tobacco manufacturers decided it might not be a good thing to encourage young people to smoke. “I did get paid, I just never got any residuals,” he quipped.

Brennan chided that he seemed to be the kiss of death of roles. A Broadway play that took him to Chicago ended after a month long run. He found himself singing in Las Vegas lounges in the Tropicana and Flamingo and met a showgirl named Karen, whom he married and would spend 45 years with.

After the newlyweds had a daughter, Sherry, Brennan moved his family to Los Angeles to be closer to medical specialists his wife needed to treat a condition she developed after the pregnancy. Deciding acting and entertainment did not offer enough steady work, Brennan and his wife began careers in southern California real estate.

The couple eventually returned to Las Vegas. But, in 2007, after being diagnosed with diabetes 2, Karen suddenly passed away. The void in his life was utterly irreplaceable. “I was quite distraught by this. I wasn’t doing much. I still dream about her today, even after her being gone for 10 years,” Brennan explained.

Brennan knew he had to do something and in 2011 decided he should try and realize his dream of completing his college education. He enrolled at UNLV where he planned to study film and musical performance.

The road to graduation was anything but smooth. He developed neuropathy in his feet that prevented him from feeling the gas and brake pedals in his car one semester. He struggled getting to class until friends offered to take him.

Brennan then suffered, not one, but two strokes.

But Brennan is not one to accept no for an answer. “When my theater professor taught me to adjust when performing a role, he was teaching that there are solutions to every problem. We just have to find them,” Brennan said. He found that to be true on stage and in life.

And so Brennan asked a doctor to help get him a motorized chair to allow him to move around. He began using the Regional Transportation Authority’s Paratransit Bus System. He was soon back in the swing of things studying film at UNLV.

“I was always amazed by the reception by my fellow students,” said Brennan, when asked about the age difference. “I never felt like a stranger in this environment.” At UNLV, Brennan focused on directing and worked with his fellow undergrads on their projects. He recently completed voice-over work as the narrator for a fellow UNLV film student. “Being involved in something in the artistic field… it makes me happy,” Brennan said.

Brennan lauded his UNLV professors. “I’d never been behind the camera. Never directed. I learned a great deal about what it takes to make a film versus being a performer,” he said.

But most of all he liked working with his fellow students. Brennan was open about his entertainment career and offered advice when asked by other students. “You have to be ready for success when it comes. When opportunities arise, if you're ready you have a great chance of success,” he said. But you also have to love what you are doing, he said, because there’s a lot of rejection in the entertainment world.  

Brennan doesn’t have immediate plans following his graduation. He’s considering a postgraduate degree and would entertain opportunities to participate in artistic or creative projects. “I've accomplished my goal. I’m not looking for monetary gain. But I’m always looking for new goals to keep me occupied.”

Meanwhile, he’ll probably spend a little time in the movie theaters this summer. One viewing likely is the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy. “I just loved the first one,” he said.

When asked why, Brennan smiled. “It made me laugh.”