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April 26, 2010

A Tribute to the Great Mr. Brittain

By Jennifer Zartman Romano

I cried when I met him and I cried several times Saturday as I joined others saying goodbye.
Indeed, I remember clearly the first day of freshman year, sitting in Mr. Brittain's classroom. The student who wanted to do her best, I listened carefully as he summarily banished "be verbs" from our writing. A great impossibility to me, I returned home and dramatically flung myself onto the peach-colored comforter in my bedroom -- my tears of frustration creating vast drippy circles among the white flowers. My mother tried to comfort me and assured me, I'd be able to do it -- but I was convinced I could not conform to Mr. Brittain's standards. A painful several weeks passed and I

remember spending a lot of time at the typewriter and at the keyboard of the computers in the laboratory at the high school. I tore up page after page. I used a lot of white-out. I stayed up late. I received reports back with ample markings to continue hitting the message home -- that as hard as I might fight against it, "be verbs" would not be tolerated in submitted papers.
Eventually, Mr. Brittain's goals I did meet.
I have learned since then that it was not about the "be verbs" -- it was about the standards he set forth. His class meant a long list of higher level reading and constant writing. Because of the expectations he had for us in our freshman year of high school, we were well prepared for the consistently harder coursework waiting for us in the years ahead -- not just at Columbia City High School, but eventually in college as well.
The foundations he set have made me a better writer -- and in the past several days, I have seen firsthand how many lives he touched in a permanent way. There are professional writers who credit their success to Mr. Brittain. There are lawyers, politicians, doctors and a vast cross section of the community who credit their success to Mr. Brittain. There are teachers who are convinced they are better teachers because of him. To some, it was the writing skills he shared. For others, it was the public speaking or debating skills. Still others were touched by his Christian life, his giving spirit and his commitment to various groups and organizations in the community.
At his funeral Saturday, we all sat shoulder to shoulder grieving...and laughing at stories about him...and grieving. There were students he worked with as recently as last week...and former students now greying at the temples. All men and women, tears streaming from their eyes as they marveled at the influence this one man had on their lives. They came from all corners of the county, state and country...yes, people took red-eye flights to be there to say goodbye to a man who meant so much to their lives.
The great irony is that a man who spent most of his life inside a second story classroom at Columbia City High School, who never married and never had children -- was, in the end, a single most influential person in the lives of perhaps thousands. A humble person, he would surely shrug off the praise spoke in his honor. Someone described him Saturday as "The Great Brittain" and great he was, indeed.
I have had the opportunity to work alongside Mr. Brittain for the past several years on the Columbia City High School Alumni board. Having such respect for him, it was very difficult for me to call him anything but Mr. Brittain. On several occasions, I received emails from him in response to those I sent to him asking repeatedly that I just call him "Bob." I enjoyed the opportunity, as an adult, to spend time with him and to really know him as more of a person outside the classroom and lecture hall experience. What a great sense of humor he had! I realized, too, how important it was to me even as an adult to have his approval. He commented to me several times about Talk of the Town and he quietly gave the nod of approval I didn't even realize I wanted as an adult -- but value even more than a red "A" on a book report. I realized that even as an adult, there are certain people in your lives with a measure of respect from whom the smallest bit of praise and approval has a value worth far more than anything we can quantify. He was one of those people who will always be esteemed in my life and who I will feel grateful to have known and learned from.

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