by David Wright
from the Stratford Historical Society
It’s a Wonderful Life is the quintessential American Christmas movie classic produced and directed by Frank Capra, based on the short story and booklet The Greatest Gift. The movie made its American theatrical debut on Christmas Day 1946. Three years earlier, almost to the day, a real life version of It’s a Wonderful Life unfolded in the Town of Stratford.
Weather in Stratford for December 1943 was unusual with continual warming and cooling episodes causing ice on ponds to form and recede continually throughout the month. Residents, particularly in the South End, were being warned to stay off lake and pond ice due to the ice’s instability. Frash Pond, with its continual incursion of sea water, formed an even less stable ice surface.
A particularly virulent influenza had invaded Stratford immediately following Thanksgiving. It seemed everyone in town had just recovered from the flu or was coming down with it. Governor Ray Baldwin was at home in Stratford with a bad case. The headline of the December 22, 1943 The Stratford News read “Anyone Who Hasn’t Been Ill Of Grippe, Or Isn’t, Seems In A Very Exclusive Class.”
The Stratford Housing Authority had formed by the Town Council in August of 1943 due to the town’s dissatisfaction with the way in which the town’s housing projects were being administered by Bridgeport and the Federal Government. Francis Brennan, a very successful, 59 yea old, businessman and community leader, was selected by the town from a pool of seven candidates to be the Executive Director.
When the Stratford Housing Authority was created, the Federal Government promised the Town there would be no out-of-pocket expenses for the Town. From the Housing Authority’s creation until mid-January of 1944, the Town received no money from the Federal Government to administer the Authority. Francis Brennan, consequently, had received no salary for his work through December.
The northeast was experiencing a critical coal shortage. Coal in short supply and one of Francis Brennan’s daily struggles was to find sufficient coal to heat the Wood End Housing Project’s housing units. Coal was selected as the heat source for the project as the coal furnaces were less expensive to install and operate.
Christmas break for the elementary students began after the end of the school day Thursday, December 23rd, and classes weren’t scheduled to resume until Monday, January 3rd. The children had to be delighted the afternoon of December 23rd to be free from school for several days. Additionally, Santa was coming in two days. Frash Pond’s ice covered surface must have looked inviting for an afternoon of play now that school was out for the holidays. The outdoor temperature was reported at about 16 degrees the afternoon of December 23rd.
Early in the afternoon of December 23rd, eight year old Eleanor Baclawsi frantically ran into Francis Brennan’s Main Street office, which was located across the street from the Chance-Vaught plant (today’s Army Engine plant). Eleanor shouted that two boys had just fallen through the ice on Frash Pond.
Francis sprinted from his office stripping off his coat and vest as he ran the 200 feet to where the boys had fallen through the ice. Seven yea old Kenneth Mackes was under water, so Francis Brennan dove in to locate him. On finding Kenneth, Francis swam with him to the shore. On reading the Frash Pond shore, Francis saw the ice that nine year old Robert Mackes was clinging to break apart. Robert was submerged. Francis dove back into the icy water and pulled Robert to the safety of the short.
(Editor’s Note: In a recent conversation with Robert Mackes, re remarked, “I can still recall being under water and I thank God for Mr. Brennan as I was going down for the count when he was able to pull me out.”)
Now that both boys were secured on the shore, Francis began to administer first aid to the boys. Francis continued his ministrations on Kenneth and Robert until an ambulance arrived and took the boys to Bridgeport Hospital.
Francis Brennan retrieved his coat and vest, and returned to his office to finish out his work day.
Just over three weeks later, Francis was working in his office when ten year old Christina Munumer ran in shouting that another boy had fallen through the Frash Pond ice. Once more, Francis dashed to Frash Pond, plunged in, and pulled five year old Rodney Peavey to safety.
It’s quite apparent what the outcome of these two eventful days would have been had Francis Brennan decided to leave work early either day; or, if Francis would have been one of the unfortunates to contract the flu on December 23rd or January 18th, disaster would have been displayed rejoicing. Francis Brennan could have done what most of us would have in similar circumstances and just waited for the emergency responders to arrive and attempt to rescue the boys. Had he done so, however, three young lives would have been lost.
The Mackes family Christmas of 1943 had to be one filled with exceeding joy realizing what might have been had Francis not been at work on December 23rd. In the ensuing years, the Mackes family moved back to their former hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Kenneth Mackes graduated from Central High School in Scranton following which he served his country in the U.S. Army. Kenneth worked and travelled throughout the United States. He was working at Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington, Vermont at the time of his passing in 2017.
Robert Mackes married and raised a family with his wife, Janice. Robert reports “I was fortunate to survive a potential drowning and hope my life has had a meaning and purpose. I served 4 years in the Air Force and retired after 28 years working for the CIA.”
Rodney Peavey graduated from Stratford High School in 1957; served in the U.S. military after graduation; attended mechanics training school in Cheyenne, Wyoming; married a Shelton girl; and, was working as a mechanic at Sikorsky Aircraft at the time of his passing in 1974.
Francis Brennan continued his active community service until his passing in 1973. His selfless contributions to his community, even beyond the heroic rescue of three boys, were legion. It is a wonderful life, indeed!