By Michelle Hiskey
Nationally ranked swimmer Billy Drennen, 17, set out to pick the Division I program where he felt most at home. He was still looking when he and his parents drove across the Mid-Hudson Bridge on Halloween weekend 2010.
Courtesy of Marcella Vaughn/UMLY
His father, Don Drennen, held back all he wanted to say as they arrived at the scenic Poughkeepsie campus of Marist College, overlooking the Hudson River. He didn’t want to influence his son with all that had happened in the Drennen family around that water – details that Billy barely knew if at all. He and his dad had agreed that college should be strictly his decision.
“The chapel, Donnelly Hall, Champagnat Hall, all the things were still there and so beautiful,” Don Drennen recalled thinking. “You see the Hudson, and for us Irish types who are melancholy and romantic, that water is home. I kept all that inside.”
The following spring, Billy’s letter of intent to attend Marist became, to his dad and five aunts, an unexpected and deeply felt valentine to a family that had been split by personal conflicts, time and geography.
While other prep stars often choose their family alma maters because of the deep emotional connection, Drennen took an almost accidental route back to the campus where his paternal grandparents taught and the town where they raised their six children. He had to overcome a series of obstacles that today make his choice of Marist seem almost preordained.
“My parents did a good job staying neutral and giving me as much help as they could without forcing my hand,” he said. “I felt the entire time it was my choice.”
“It completes the circle, but it’s happenstance, serendipity,” his father said. “Isn’t that cool it worked out that way? It is sweet.”
Billy Drennen swam in the YMCA Short Course Nationals in Fort Lauderdale in April 2011. Courtesy of Marcella Vaughn/UMLY
Billy Drennen recalled his path to his college choice recently before swimming a number of events (the 100, 200, 400 meter freestyle, 100 meter breast and anchoring the 800 meter freestyle relay) at the YMCA Long Course National Championships in Atlanta at the Georgia Tech campus.
The Drennen family’s path to Marist began 32 years before he was born.
In 1962, professor D.A. Drennen joined the Marist philosophy department and, with his wife Eileen, moved their six children – all under age 10 -- to Poughkeepsie. The Drennens were in the first generation of their families to go to college, and the three main values in their life were learning, Catholicism and Irish heritage. In a cherished reminder of those days, a campus magazine includes several photos of the Drennens in Marist’s Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Chapel, preparing for communion and singing at a folk mass.
“When I was a kid, it wasn’t a college to me, or just a place -- it was Marist – as much a part of our family as Billy’s grandfather was a part of it,” Don Drennen said. “I couldn’t put my arms around it. It was everything.”
Change was coming to the many church-related seminaries and colleges along the Hudson, including Marist, built by a Catholic order on property they purchased in 1905. When the Drennens arrived, the Marist Brothers had just opened their campus to men outside their brotherhood.
By 1968 when women were admitted, Eileen Drennen had been teaching history and becoming a beloved figure around campus, even when multiple sclerosis forced her retirement from the classroom. Her disease forced her to use a wheelchair at times and made her temporarily blind. She was the sugar to her husband’s vinegar.
In 1964, D.A. and Eileen Drennen took their only family vacation and went with their six children to Prince Edward Island, Canada. (L-R) Susan, D.A., Deirdre, daughter Eileen, mother Eileen, Don, Marist Brother Andrew Malloy (a family friend), Beth, Maura Courtesy of Drennen Family
When asked to describe D.A. Drennen, his children and acquaintances often pause in wry discomfort. He was brilliant, but mercurial. And not what you’d call an athlete. “It was all my brother could do to get him to play catch,” said his daughter, also named Eileen Drennen.
But D.A. Drennen so epitomized the college that a former Marist president remarked, “If you hadn’t had Don Drennen, you hadn’t had Marist.”
“My father had a reputation as a tough grader. He didn’t hand you anything,” his son said. “If you didn’t earn a C, he didn’t give you a C…. Billy is the opposite of him. He’s more like [his grandmother], telling jokes and having a positive outlook on everything.”
One constant for the Drennen children was the college’s giant pool, an oval bigger than Olympic size, built over a spring and edged with flat slate rocks the brothers hauled from the Hudson.
The pool was an extension of the brothers’ bond with the Hudson River, site of the national crew championship – the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta –from 1895 to 1949; today, Marist’s crew owns more than a dozen conference titles. The pool became an outdoor classroom for the brothers’ ideals of education, service and community.
“They had such an ethos of reaching out to others, and a strong tie to the water because of the college’s location,” said Tim Massie, who grew up with the Drennens.
The pool was where baby sister Beth fell in “and I had to grab her out,” Don Drennen said, and his sister Eileen remembers the test of the high dive. The Marist pool, they said, gave them a sense of belonging.
In the mid-1960s, the outdoor pool at Marist College was a popular gathering place for students and faculty families like the Drennens. The connection between the community and the water carried over from the campus setting overlooking the Hudson River. Courtesy of Marist College Archives
From Marist, the Drennen kids scattered, taking an almost opposite path from their academic parents. Even though Marist waived fees for faculty children, the Drennen parents didn’t encourage theirs to attend. They didn’t much influence them to go to any college, and years passed before their fifth child, Billy’s dad, became their first to graduate.
“They told me, ‘If you want to go to college, you worry about the process – the SATs and applications,’ ” said Don Drennen. “They felt strongly that if one of their kids wanted to go, we had to understand the difficulty and therefore value the education. It was well intentioned, but I don’t know if it was well considered. College is such a mystery when you are in high school. I know when I got to be a parent, I wanted to be there and help my kids as much as I could.”
Don Drennen graduated from college, received a Navy commission then worked as an insurance manager. Differences with his father made them estranged for many years. Because of military then corporate obligations, he moved his family 12 times. He and wife Debbie raised their four children -- Billy is the youngest -- far from the memories of Poughkeepsie.
Billy Drennen refused to go in the water until his mom forced him at age 11 onto a swim team in Ohio.
“I didn’t know how to swim,” he recalled. “My mom told me I was going to do it, and I wasn’t that upset until she took out the suit. I had never worn a tight suit before and I wouldn’t come out of the locker room in it. ‘Billy Drennen, you get out here in that suit!’ she yelled.
“That first day of practice, I had to do a 50 (meter) to the other side of the pool and back, and I grabbed the wall at the turn, did two strokes back and then grabbed the lane line until someone got me.”
Soccer was his best sport; swimming stayed an obligation, like music classes and homework. For skipping the most laps at swim practice in 9th grade, when the family had moved to Pennsylvania, he was given a “Skipper Award” made from a paper plate. The joke created a wave of change.
“I made a goal to become a great swimmer, and not slack off like I did in everything else,” he said. “I had never quit anything, but I didn’t want to be just OK. I put my mind to not be a skipper anymore, and to work my butt off to be on relays and one of the kids leading practices.”
Pennsylvania is a deep state for swimming, and Drennen pushed himself by joining the Upper Main Line YMCA (UMLY) club team 17 miles from his house. His family pitched in as Team Drennen. Because his parents didn’t want him to drive in the predawn darkness, his dad took him to 5 a.m. swim practice. After school meant 2 to 3 more hours in the pool. His parents never missed a meet.
By his junior year, he had grown to be the largest Drennen, 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds. When his times started to qualify for nationals (his best 200 free is 1:44.07; 500 free is 4:40.09), Division I recruitment letters followed.
Swimming wasn't Billy Drennen's first love, but he eventually excelled at the sport. Courtesy of Marcella Vaughn/UMLY
As he dove into the college selection process and traveled with Billy to a dozen campuses, his father kept a black book of possible school choices. “We culled and culled and culled,” he said. He noticed Marist topped several lists for academic value and regional excellence “but I didn’t take it seriously because I still thought of it as the Marist from when I was 18.”
To wade through the possible schools, Don Drennen turned to an academic ally who happened to be his best friend since he was 14 and godfather to his oldest son. Timmian “Tim” Massie, 53, had not only jumped into Marist’s ice-cold pool with Don Drennen. In seminary, Massie had studied from a philosophy text authored by D.A. Drennen. Eventually he circled back to Marist as chief public affairs officer.
To Billy’s dad, Massie mentioned Marist’s strong swim program, but not his inner conflicts. He wanted Billy at Marist so he’d see his parents more, but didn’t want him to think of him as a spy reporting back to them. Besides, Billy still had to qualify.
“We had 11,400 applications for 1,000 freshmen spots,” Massie said. “My response to Don and Billy was, ‘Come visit and see if it’s the right fit. If not, it’s OK. Go to the school you feel most at home.’ “
After realizing that he wouldn’t feel comfortable at a large-conference school, Billy Drennen and his parents headed 200 miles north to Marist. He worried it might be too small and removed, and he’d be bored.
He arrived without much knowledge of his family roots there. The direct connection was long gone. His grandmother died when he was 9 and his grandfather when he was 11. Just before then, his dad and grandfather had reconciled.
“I really didn’t get to see them much because I lived far away, and I don’t have many memories of my grandfather other than he was a genius,” he said. “Grandma was the nicest person. It killed me to see her in a nursing home.”
His father dropped him off with the Red Fox swim team, his lips sealed.
Drennen, a straight A student, liked the numbers at Marist. The Red Foxes have one of the highest team GPAs of all NCAA Division I swim teams. He was also impressed with the decreased times from freshmen swimmers to seniors, showing that the program works on development. His college goal is to make the NCAA championships.
Marist swim coach Larry VanWagner’s soft sell nearly turned Drennen away.
“I only recruit those athletes who have found something about Marist first and they make initial contact,” said VanWagner, whose first duties as coach 36 years ago included painting the lane lines in the giant outdoor oval pool.
That spot was replaced by the James J. McCann Recreation Center, where in the past 13 years his swim teams have won 12 team and 77 individual titles in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). Along the way, the campus swelled from 1,600 to 4,200 students, and his swimmers ripple in from as far away as Hawaii.
“Marist is not for everybody, but it’s special for a lot of people. Our student-athletes have to find their connection first,” VanWagner said.
Eventually, Marist offered a swim scholarship based on Drennen’s potential as a late bloomer. “He has a great deal of untapped potential and a real physicalness,” VanWagner said. “We try to estimate the remaining potential in our athletes.”
But what sealed Drennen’s choice was the feeling of rootedness he experienced while visiting the Red Fox swimmers.
“They seemed like such a family,” he said. “I felt welcomed in immediately and really felt at home. At a smaller school, everyone knows each other… I could see myself being happier there than anywhere else, and the sense of family contributed to my decision.”
Could that be the spirit that his grandparents helped foster on this campus a half century before? The thought played into the Drennens’ sentimental side, which Billy Drennen discovered after signing Marist’s scholarship offer.
“I was surprised when my dad told me that my aunts cried,” he said. “I was surprised it was that big a deal.”
“I was surprised how emotional it was,” agreed his aunt, Eileen Drennen, who lives in Atlanta. She sees bittersweet bookends: Billy heading to Marist on the strength of his superb athletic ability, the same campus where the grandmother he barely knew gave back to academia despite immense physical pain.
“We were defined by knowledge and sickness,” she said. “It’s all about closing circles. Billy’s the cap on our family’s achievement at Marist… Marist was where we were all together last.”
In the next year, Marist plans to host a reading of D.A. Drennen’s final book, “A Privilege of Intellect: Conscience and Wisdom in Newman’s Narrative,” (due out this fall from University of Scranton Press), a psychological biography of the English Cardinal John Henry Newman, who is on track to become a saint. Some of Drennen’s children will gather there to read from the posthumously published book, which weaves the threads of intellectual life and religious faith. By then, Billy – an accounting major -- will likely be well into Philosophy 101 and possibly a history elective.
He figures he’ll learn more along the way about the earlier Drennens and their memories. What he knows now about Marist is that he belongs.
Michelle Hiskey, a former Duke student-athlete, is based in Decatur, Ga.