Bob Brabender, son of a powerful Erie alderman and the last surviving of seven siblings who made local news for the better part of six decades, could rightly be called a force of nature.
When he died at 90 on Easter Sunday, Brabender was remembered as an athlete, teacher, coach, city councilman and loving father of his own six children. He once told me that he inherited his zest for competition from his father, George “Pat” Brabender, who officially entered politics in the 1950s — after 25 years in the building industry and two in the restaurant business.
For 16 years, Pat Brabender served as alderman for the Sixth Ward. He later put in eight years as Erie's finance director, and was a high-ranking Erie Democrat who wielded plenty of clout. “My brother Billy and I were the youngest in the family, and we were determined to make the old man proud,” Bob said.
At Strong Vincent High School, the twins, as they were known, excelled in baseball, football, track and, most impressively, wrestling. In 1945, Bob won the state championship at 127 pounds, while Billy took first in the state at 133 pounds. The brothers went on to Indiana University, where they ranked among the best wrestlers in the Big Ten Conference.
When they returned home, they became teachers and coaches in the Erie School District. For much of their tenure, Bobby coached at his alma mater, while Billy became a legendary coach at East High School. As wrestling coaches, the matches between their schools, with each Brabender prowling the sidelines like Gen. George Patton, were fights to the finish.
In Bobby’s obituary, my second favorite part was about how his lifelong competition with, and love for, his brother Billy drove him to achieve so many of the successes he attained throughout his life.
My favorite part touched on his style of parenting and grandparenting, which varied from “being a proud, loving softy to a demanding, hyper-analytic taskmaster.” Almost everyone who played for Coach Brabender — Bobby and Billy — knew they would reach their full potential, or die trying.
Sometimes it wasn’t pretty. Neither man was what would be known today as politically correct, but, for good and bad, they knew how to inspire young people and they were almost always entertaining.
In 1969, local Republicans convinced Bobby to switch parties and run against Mayor Lou Tullio, who was completing his first team. Brabender received nearly 18,000 votes, but he lost to Tullio, whose beloved wife, Ceil Tullio, lay dying of cancer, by more than 6,000 votes. In the late 1970s, Brabender would also lose the race for Erie County executive against Russell Robison.
But he never left the political arena and was a respected city councilman for many years. Brabender would step down after two terms, sit it out for four years, and then run and win again. He did this several times.
In the spring of 1993, when he was out of office, he made a memorable speech in council chambers, deploring the idea of building a baseball stadium on Erie’s bayfront. Always a skilled orator, he roared that seagulls would hold dominion over such a fiasco as this proposed ballpark.
I remember thinking that Brabender’s speech that day might have single-handedly ended the drive for a new ballpark, but when I met him two days later at a communion breakfast, he had a different tone. I asked him why a person who played and coached baseball for so many years would be so opposed to a park to save professional baseball for Erie.
Bobby replied that he wasn’t against the park — only the idea of building it on the waterfront. “What about on the old Sears property?” he suggested. Even though architects had already judged that space to be too small to accommodate a stadium, Bobby insisted that it could work. Eventually, it did.
I am sorry to see the end of this generation of the Brabenders, who brought so much panache and color to Erie sports and politics. But the family — and especially the twins — will be remembered for a long time.
Kevin Cuneo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.