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‘School itself was a great challenge’: Retired firefighter finished college degree 60 years later

Odran “Pat” Branley, 88, a retired FDNY lieutenant from Brooklyn is the last one of his four children and six grandchildren to finish college.

He is again back in red, not a fire truck, but in a red sweatshirt of the St. John’s Redmen – his official graduation was Sunday, May 31.

He needed only two classes to finish his bachelor’s degree and it was his old fraternity friends from St. John’s in Queens that spurred the Brooklyn born and bred native on to finish 60 years after he dropped out – his fire duties and family taking too much of his time. In that first year on the job, he went to his first big fire, the great Brooklyn plane crash that killed 134, and shortly after, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Constellation caught fire in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

So he was looking forward to walking down the aisle to collect his diploma with his much younger new fellow students, but it was not to be as COVID-19 forced the closure of the school and cancellation of the college commencement.

When he started classes, the gray-bearded Branley was excited, but his fellow classmates “thought I was the professor,” he laughed, adding “I told them I’m a senior senior.”

“I just needed the two classes and one professor, Connie Frisch was especially good to me. She took this dopey kid who was illiterate of the internet, and showed me how to set up an email address and she coached me through the on-line classes,” said Branley, a resident of Mill Basin and a life-long resident of Brooklyn.

“You know, 80 is the new 60, so why not,” he joked.

Branley had to take a required history course to complete his history major and a photo/art course as an elective. The history course was especially poignant as he studied the interwar years from 1919-1939, with much depression years, “a very sad chapter in our history.” He worries that the city’s economy may be heading in the same direction as COVID-19 has kept many businesses shuttered and surviving stores are looted.

Branley said he was forced to leave college in 1960, when his firefighting duties became too great and he was starting a family with his wife of 48 years, Betty. He then spent the next 31 years with the FDNY, mostly with Engine 248 on Snyder Avenue in Flatbush, and then his last eight years with Engine 284, the “Castle on the Hill” in Dyker Heights.

During his early years, he recalls so many buildings being vacant and being set on fire by building owners – the old “urban renewal.” Many building owners of the ’70s couldn’t afford to keep their buildings during the 70’s recession years – some abandoning them to squatters and arsonists.

“Sometimes you would get two a night on the same block,” Branley recalled, “And there would be this big pool nearby and people would jump the fence to swim at night and we would be their entertainment.”

But those years were also sad as fire codes were more lax and more buildings burned because they were in decay. He also remembered when Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered and fires roared through the borough. He said he now views the police abuse and shakes his head.

“I worked the night of Martin Luther King was assassinated  – it was so sad, and now you see the image of that man with cop kneeling on him, George Floyd, it reminded me of when Mathew Shepard was tied to a fence in Wyoming (killed for being gay). When I saw the video of Floyd, I told my daughters not to look,” he said.

The moment etched in his mind is was when they found an 8-year-old girl killed in a Christmas eve fire, “the chief didn’t even want to come in to see her.”

And then the late 70’s, when President Ford was quoted by the New York Daily News saying “Drop Dead,” many municipal workers were furloughed or were laid off permanently.

“I hope we don’t go there again because the way we are going now, God oh mighty – six months from now the city could be bankrupt with no tax base and again, they are talking about possible layoffs and furloughs,” Branley said. “It was very painful for a lot of guys back in the 70’s.”

Branley was a senior man at that point but he was also a Naval veteran, having served aboard at amphibious ship as a radar man for four years in Europe and Africa. The city couldn’t fire a veteran.

“A lot of guys were in deep, deep trouble, many were had a father and son on the job – their father’s supporting them while laid off. Some came back on the job, some went on to very successful careers elsewhere,” he recalled.

Branley retired from the FDNY in 1991, having served 31 years with the department. He had children and grandchildren to look after – but they too grew up. And then 12 years ago, he lost his wife of 48 years, Betty, to complications of rheumatoid arthritis. But despite the loss, Branley remains devoted to his family – though they have had to remain separated due to COVID-19.

All of his grown children have college degrees, three lawyers, and one teacher. Only this past year, he attended his youngest granddaughter Zoe, graduating high school from St. Francis Prep.

Branley with his granddaughter Zoe Mitchel at her 2019 graduation.

“A bachelor’s degree was like filling a void. I had already did things they mention in the invocation, it is all done for me,” Branley sighed. “I always felt that void – I came so close to finishing. I just needed a push from my fraternity brothers.”

While he’s a bit sad he must miss graduation commencement, he’s not complaining.

“I’m sitting here in my house by myself on day of graduation, but look,  a lot of people my age are dying with no fanfare so I’m not complaining,” Branley said. “School itself was a great challenge with everything breaking down, but I made it to the finish online, so I’m gonna hang it up and get the ring.”

Odran “Pat” Branley with his school books having just finished his college degree. (Photo by Debbie Egan-Chin)

Todd Maisel
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Todd Maisel

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