He had just heard, listening on his small transistor radio, the historic news. It was 1969 and he was in the heart of a jungle sitting among indigenous members of the Enga Province eating sweet potatoes. The visit’s aim was to gather language and culture data to include in a dialect survey. Certainly not the first, he was one of the few “white men” to venture out among this historically warlike population.
Awkwardly, yet in their native tongue, this skilled linguist attempted to explain the recent transmission. Peering and pointing skyward, he relayed to them that, “People have gone to the moon!” He continued, “It is important, and they have lots of money to do this.” Stricken with disbelief and dumbfounded, one of the old men posed a multiple choice question. “Why do that? For sweet potatoes, for pigs, or for women?” All joking aside, this inquiry was with utter seriousness requiring a no-nonsense reply. He informed them, “They went to see if it had rocks and water.” They roared with uncontrollable laughter.
Soon another man probed, “Who did this?” He kept on, “The Lutherans or the Catholics?” To explain, the people of these rugged interior highlands of Papua New Guinea had seen only an occasional missionary plane flying overhead; the yellow ones were flown by Lutherans, and the blue ones by the Roman Catholics.
There is virtually no way that a conversation including the locales of Ottawa, Ohio, and Papua New Guinea could ever take place without the bridge of Dr. Paul Brennan. Brennan, a native of Ottawa was the one, almost 50 years ago, engaging in conversation with some of the inhabitants of a land just over 8,500 miles away.
Here at home, were it not for Google Earth, it would take more than a few turns of the globe to even locate the country that makes up the eastern half of the second largest island on the planet, almost seven times the size of the state of Ohio. Positioned off the northern coast of Australia, it is a land of deep jungles, mountains, beautiful beaches and dotted with over a dozen volcanoes. Suffice to say, it is of a geography the antithesis of northwest Ohio.
This most genuine, congenial and humble man, though born in Leipsic, would spend most of his early years in Ottawa. Frequent moves to different homes were somewhat forced upon his family via a litany of hardships. Beset with financial struggles due in part to an oft unemployed alcoholic father, the three Brennan children, born within 29 months of one another, were raised primarily by a strong-willed, Great Depression-forged mother.
Even with a hard-working mother to keep the family finances afloat, the children were called upon to enter the “workforce” at an early age. This led Paul to start delivering The Toledo Blade newspaper at the youthful age of 7. Character-building, he would knock on each customer’s door every Saturday to collect the 30 cents due for six days of delivery. The modest revenue was supplemented with the lawn mowing and sidewalk shoveling of newspaper customers.
Instilling confidence, Paul’s mother had him direct his income toward the dubious undertaking of keeping current the supply of underwear for himself and his two siblings. With the aid of grandparents, who opened up their Main Street Ottawa home and converted the attic into bedrooms, Paul and family lived there till he turned 14.
A lover of song, Paul would enter a state vocal music contest and be awarded a blue ribbon for his efforts as a tenor soloist. As a congratulatory gesture, a couple gentlemen from the Ottawa Missionary Church Paul attended did something very special for Paul. Never having owned a suit, he was duly rewarded with this most unexpected gift. Leonard Gustwiller, of Gustwiller’s Mens and Boys Wear, made the call inviting Paul into the store for a fitting. Paul so impressed Mr. Gustwiller with his gracious response to the generosity and his demonstrative Christian faith, that a salesman position was offered the young high school sophomore and he gladly joined the staff a few months later.
His rather inauspicious beginnings betray the trajectory to unfold following graduation from Ottawa High School as a member of the class of 1956. Academically, the next years would take him from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Kansas City, Missouri, and finally Hartford, Connecticut. Along the way he’d garner bachelor’s degrees in both arts and divinity, a Master of Arts, and finally a Ph.D. with a dissertation in “The Structure of Koine Greek Narrative.” Ordained as a Missionary Church pastor, Paul’s passion’s centered on anthropology and linguistics.
Gifted in both Greek and Hebrew, along with his interest in the Melanesian language, Paul would eventually and somewhat surprisingly become linked with the New Guinea Lutheran Mission. With expertise in literacy and translation, he was the right man to end their decade-long search for someone qualified to work in Papua New Guinea.
So, with his wife Dottie, two sons, and eight missionary barrels of cargo, Paul, in 1968, headed off deep into the interior mountains to spend the next 10 years living among the many clans of the Enga people and translating their language into the New Testament. Two more sons would be born to them in the jungles of that land. Significant risk was undertaken by the Brennans among a very pugilistic people who would defend to the death and lived out “an eye for an eye.” In the midst of embattled clans burning houses and launching bows and arrows, Paul became the local 911 seeking to mitigate their animosities. Due in part to his presence and intervention, education and church life have now supplanted centuries-old hostilities.
An undying dedication to the people, history and culture, would eventually bring about his instrumental and material contributions to an internationally recognized Learning Center in Wabag, the capital of the province. If space permitted, readers could hear of the 1975 independence granted Papua New Guinea where Paul was invited by the U.S. Government to be her first ambassador, a position he would eventually turn down.
The impact of Dr. Paul Brennan cannot be quantified as regard his global missionary efforts, linguistic and literary contributions, cultural education and influence, and what has proven since to be a longstanding legacy. He treasured deeply the people of that country doing so with an abiding faith coupled with gracious humility. One more reason to celebrate what may arise out of “small town America!”
Ken Pollitz moved to Ottawa in 1991 as mission-developer/pastor of New Creation Lutheran Church. His biweekly column provides insights and viewpoints from Putnam County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org