Retired Mill Basin firefighter finishes college degree 60 years later

Odran “Pat” Branley, 88, graduated from St. John’s University on May 31, 60 years after starting.
Debbie Egan-Chin

Mill Basin resident Odran “Pat” Branley is the last one of his four children and six grandchildren to finish college.

On May 31, the 88-year-old retired FDNY lieutenant was back in red — this time a St. John’s University Red Storm sweatshirt — for what would have been his graduation ceremony, if not for the novel coronavirus.

Branley dropped out of college 60 years ago to focus on his family and his Fire Department duties, but only needed two classes to finish his bachelor’s degree — until his old fraternity friends from St. John’s spurred the lifelong Brooklynite to give it another go.

“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 online classes,” said Branley. “You know, 80 is the new 60, so why not?”

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

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.

In his first year on the job, Branley said he responded to the great Brooklyn plane crash of December, 1960 that killed 134 people, and during his early years, he recalls vacant buildings being set on fire by owners — the old “urban renewal,” he said, adding that so many buildings owners in the 1970’s couldn’t afford to keep their buildings during the recession years, and some even abandoned them.

“I hope we don’t go there again because the way we are going now, God almighty – 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 remembers working the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. “It was so sad,” he said, drawing a similarity to current events. “Now you see the images of that man with the cop kneeling on him, George Floyd — it reminded me of when Mathew Shepard was tied to a fence in Wyoming. When I saw the video of Floyd, I told my daughters not to look.”

He retired from the FDNY in 1991, having served 31 years with the department and, although he lost his wife to complications of rheumatoid arthritis 12 years ago, Branley remains devoted to his family.

All of his grown children have college degrees, he said — three are lawyers and one is a teacher. Just last year, he attended his youngest granddaughter Zoe’s high school graduation from St. Francis Prep.

“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.”

On May 31, during a weekend of unrest across the country, Branley was set to finally graduate — but since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of St. John’s and the cancellation of its commencement ceremony, he was unable to walk down the aisle with other, younger students.

Branley, however, was all smiles that sunny Sunday.

“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.”

This story first appeared on AMNY.com.