Capitol Notebook: Lessons from a senator’s life

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Legislators, mental health advocates and his many friends gathered last weekend to celebrate the life of Joe Brannigan, a long-serving legislator from Portland who also built Shalom House, a network of housing for the mentally ill.

A Topsham native and U.S. Navy veteran, Joe gave up his early career as a Catholic priest to pursue another in the world of politics and caring for the mentally ill. He died in mid-January, and was remembered on Saturday by a crowd of several hundred as a man who showed others the way in his mission to help others.

“He was still our priest,” Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said.

The Portland senators who served with him recalled his commitment to make government do its job in caring for those who need it.

“He was our true north,” said Sen. Anne Haskell, who now occupies the Senate seat from the Deering and Westbrook area once held by Brannigan.

He could also be blunt.

Sen. Justin Alfond recalled his first meeting with Brannigan, by then a veteran legislator well into his 70s. Alfond said that he wanted to run for the state Senate because he thought the Legislature needed fresh young faces.

“Who the hell told you that?” Brannigan interrupted.

But it was as the architect of Shalom House, and its ever-expanding mission to provide residential and treatment services to the mentally ill, that he will most be remembered.

Shalom House was founded in the early 1970s, just as a wave of “de-institutionalization” released patients from mental hospitals and onto city streets with no support.

The agency was started at 90 High St. in Portland, now known as Brannigan House, and now provides housing choices ranging from rooming houses to individual apartments. It was Brannigan’s vision, and skill at finding funding for expanding projects, that fueled its growth. (Full disclosure: Joe asked me to be on the board in the late 1980s, and since then I have served four terms, finishing late last year.)

He combined his Shalom House mission with his work in the Legislature, a dual role made easier by speeding down Interstate 295 at 85 miles an hour.

He was serious in his mission, but always had a joke, delivered with a twinkle in his eye. He loved to have fun. His pictures, even formal shots posed in the Senate chamber, showed a knowing grin, as though he had just shared a laugh with the photographer.

One speaker on Saturday recalled attending a party to meet Brannigan for the first time, expecting a serious and distinguished legislator. Instead, Joe made a dashing entrance, speeding into the parking lot in an orange Volvo, dressed in shorts and sandals, in search of the proper libation. He loved to watch sports, to drink bourbon (a late convert from Scotch) and to have fun, but also to devour a 700-page historical biography in a few days.

The lessons of Joe’s life were described by Brennan using the word “community”; that we show our love for each other within the framework of larger community. Joe knew that for recovering patients, finding a supportive community was the key.

Printed on the service program were stanzas from “A Psalm of Life,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Two of them are:

“Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our loves sublime
And departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time …

“Let us then be up and doing
With a heart for any fate
Still achieving, still pursuing
Learn to labor and to wait.”

I will miss him, and I hope I’ve learned the lessons.

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Portland resident Marian McCue is the former editor and publisher of The Forecaster.

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