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Donor Stories

Ed & Lois Brennan

Ed & Lois Brennan

When Edward Brennan ’51 came to Fenwick as a freshman in 1947, there was no way he could have known the impact that the school would have on him. And there was certainly no way anyone could have known the impact Ed and his future family would have on Fenwick High School.

The marriage of Ed Brennan to Lois Lyon in 1955 put in motion a lifetime of philanthropic giving to Fenwick High School that totaled more than $1,200,000. Additionally, Ed’s younger brother Bernard ’56, has also been most generous to his high school alma mater as has Ed’s son, John, who is parent of two Fenwick graduates.

For more than 60 years, the Edward Brennan family had created a tradition of giving. But it was the final gift from Ed and Lois that transformed tradition into legacy. Ed passed away in early 2008 and Lois in February of last year. Upon her death, Fenwick received a gift of $1,000,000 from the Edward and Lois Brennan Estate.

“It is easy to be grateful and humbled by the amount the Brennan Family bequeathed to Fenwick through planned giving,” says Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P., President of Fenwick High School. “But what’s more incredible is that Ed and Lois Brennan thought enough of their experiences with Fenwick, and the experiences shared by their family, that they would consciously choose to make a last act of philanthropy in this way. Ed and Lois understood the needs of the school and how important it is to help secure Fenwick for the generations to come. Their bequest is truly a magnificent way to show the incredible reverence they had for the institution because of how it influenced their lives.”

Two Local Kids

Ed and Lois were Oak Park and River Forest natives—children of St. Catherine’s Parish where they also attended grade school. In high school Lois attended Trinity and Ed came to Fenwick where he managed to hold down several after school jobs in order to help pay the tuition while still excelling in academics and on the football field. Ed’s parents divorced when he was young. His mother moved with his sisters to Mexico and then his father died while he and Bernie were in their teens. Rather than feel orphaned, the priests provided Ed with support—and later Bernie, too—in a way that forever shaped both men. And the friends Ed made at Fenwick remained friends throughout his life. Despite his success and demanding responsibilities as a father and CEO, he never once strayed from his friends or discounted the impact that his time at Fenwick had on him, John says.

They both graduated high school in 1951 and headed off to college—Lois to the Rosary College of Arts and Sciences at Dominican University and Ed to Marquette University in Milwaukee. Mere days after graduating in 1955, Ed and Lois married and began building their family. They would go on to have six children and, eventually, 19 grandchildren.

Ed’s work took his family and he around the country for 14 years before settling back in Chicagoland in 1980. That was when Ed became the Chairman and CEO of Sears Roebuck & Company—the store at which his grandfather, father and uncles worked long before, and where he and brother, Bernie, first worked as young men. Ed oversaw the company during an exciting time in its history before stepping down in 1995. Ironically, but perhaps not so coincidentally, his brother Bernie became the President and CEO of Sears’ rival, Montgomery Ward & Company.

Ed and Bernie’s professional success at two of the nation’s most influential retailers in modern history is a testament to their upbringing and the strong academics, pursuit of excellence and loving care and guidance they received from the teachers, priests, coaches, and administrators at Fenwick. The Brennans’ enduring gratitude to the School was reflected through their volunteer leadership throughout the years, and most recently through their philanthropic commitment to Fenwick.

Friars for Life and Beyond

Ed and Lois’ son John says that his father always credited Fenwick for his “mental toughness, his tenacity, his sense of humility and his belief that nothing was more important than personal integrity.”
Singing the praises of Fenwick and its intensely positive impact on their lives was common for Ed and Lois. It didn’t matter that Lois was a Trinity grad. When it came time for granddaughter Kelly ’11 to attend, it was a no brainer. And when Kelly played on the Fenwick Girls’ Volleyball Team, and there was a game against Trinity, Lois cheered for the Friars. Kelly’s younger brother, Jack ’15, also saw every reason in the world to attend Fenwick.

So when Jack’s great Uncle Bernie, with whom he shared a birthday, was there to see him walk across the stage at graduation last May, the moment was undeniably powerful. “They have been close for many years,” John says. “It was an emotional time for both of them.”

A Plan to Give

“My parents felt not only an obligation, but a strong desire to give back to Fenwick; to give others the same chances and experiences that they were given,” John says. “My father’s experiences at Fenwick and the strong lifetime bonds he developed while there created his commitment to education, and especially, a Friar education.”

And the legacy continues. Bernie remains one of the school’s largest single donors, has served on the Board of Directors and is a member of the Fenwick Hall of Fame. John and his wife, Jean, are major donors to Fenwick even though their children have graduated because like Ed and Lois, John and Jean feel the obligation and the strong desire to give back to a place that has done so much for their family—the generations that came before and those that follow after.

And for that Fenwick is eternally grateful.

The Ernest F. Watts Family

Watts Family I
Clockwise: bill, Kathleen, Barb & Ernie Watts

Fenwick High School is extremely grateful for the generosity of Ernest F. Watts, Jr. ’55 for his wonderful foresight in establishing Fenwick High School as a primary recipient of two charitable remainder trusts. Given in appreciation of the pivotal role Fenwick High School played in his life and that of many of his family members, Ernie was loyal to Fenwick his entire life. Through the years, Ernie Watts was alum, parent, volunteer, trustee and Hall of Fame recipient. 

Life took Ernie, Jr. far from Oak Park IL for many years. After graduation, he attended college in Alabama and later met and married his wife, Margaret “Putzi.” Together they had three children, Ernie III, Peggy and Colin ’88. Ernie began a lifelong career in sales with Binks Manufacturing, a paint spray equipment company started by his grandfather. As he took on more responsibilities, he and his family moved around, from Dallas to Memphis to Mexico City and finally to Toronto, where he was Vice President and General Manager of Binks Canada. 

For a time, he considered sending his son, Ernie Watts III, to Oak Park to live with relatives just so that he might attend Fenwick and have the same type of high school educational experience he had. In 1981, Ernie Jr. returned to the Bink’s home office in Franklin Park, IL to become Corporate VP of Marketing and Planning. Moving back to Chicago allowed his youngest son, Colin, to attend Fenwick. When Ernie retired from the firm in the late 1990’s he moved to Chandler, AZ., where he continued to show his Fenwick pride through the Fenwick reunions he helped organize. Somehow through the years he always made it “home” for golf outings, reunions and other Fenwick events. After Putzi died in 2002, Ernie remarried, and he and his wife Judy, split their time between Phoenix and the New Orleans area.

Ernie’s brother, Bill ’62 has fond memories of Fenwick and the instrumental role Fenwick had in their formation. Bill had a distinguished career in high school administration, serving as principal at several schools, including both St. Ignatius and Gordon High School, now DePaul Preparatory School. “I knew from the time I entered kindergarten that I was going to Fenwick because that’s where my uncle went and my older brother was going and ‘because kids get smart there’ and prepared for college. I loved the school’s focus on discipline, academic rigor and sports – especially football. Even though I was not an athlete myself, I always knew that I belonged there and honestly believed it was the best high school in the country,” he said.  

When it came time for Ernie III’s eldest son, Ian, to consider Catholic high schools, they looked at several, including brother-in-law’s alma mater (St. Ignatius) and Fenwick, the Watts family tradition. After attending the Fenwick open house and hearing the presentation, son Ian was sold on Fenwick, and even mom Barb agreed wholeheartedly that Fenwick was the right choice. Hence the third generation  Fenwick/Watts began, with all of Ernie III and Barbara’s four children, Ian ’05, Anne ’06, Jane ’08 and Molly ’12 eventually attending Fenwick.

Watts II
(l to r) Collin Watts '88, Ernie Watts, Jr. '55, Peggy Watts Sarason & Ernie Watts III

“My daughter Jane got to college and was surprised at how other students were struggling in their writing classes compared to how easy her transition was, thanks to the rigorous preparation she had at Fenwick,” said Ernie III. “We are so grateful to my grandparents for starting the Fenwick tradition with my dad Ernie and my Uncle Bill. Fenwick is such an exceptional college prep school, there is no doubt that my kids all hope one day to send their children to Fenwick. We need to remember how much our professional successes in life are due to our Fenwick education,” said Ernie III. “This is something my dad deeply appreciated and wanted his bequest to recognize.”

Ernie III’s sister, Peggy Watts Sarason, and her husband, Don, were intent on their children attending Fenwick so much so that they moved their family from Seattle to LaGrange in order for their children to become Friars…and today, Joshua, is a sophomore. In fact, regarding their relocation, Peggy adds, “I did not even accept my new job until I knew that Josh had gotten into Fenwick.” 

“It says a lot about a family’s commitment to the outstanding quality education at Fenwick that a family would take up roots and move across the country so that their children could come here,” said Fr. Richard Peddicord, O.P. “We are building young people who are prepared to lead and achieve in their lives after they leave our School. The Watts family symbolizes the conviction that Fenwick is a truly exceptional school. We are so grateful to Ernie for his steadfast support of Fenwick throughout his lifetime. Ernie’s legacy to Fenwick exemplifies his deep gratitude and desire to give back to the School that gave his family so much.”  

And so the legacy continues… thank you Ernie.