Beloved Brentwood mayor and public servant mourned by community
By Mindy Tate
Special to the Herald
Former longtime Brentwood Mayor and Commissioner Joe Sweeney (third from left) stand with a group of city officials.
To many people, former longtime Brentwood Mayor and Commissioner Joe Sweeney was Mr. Brentwood, always ready with a firm handshake that greeted you at every event with perhaps a hug and a kiss for the ladies and children.
Mayor Sweeney, who died Monday, enjoyed a storied 38-year career on the Brentwood City Commission whose members are elected by the citizens.
The commissioners then elect one from their own ranks to serve as mayor, and Joe Sweeney held that distinction longer and for more terms than any other person since the city of Brentwood’s founding in 1969.
He was first elected in 1972 and served uninterrupted until his retirement in 2011 due to health issues. He served four, two-year terms, as the city’s mayor, and as commissioner he served longer than anyone.
City Commissioner Anne Dunn said she first met Maureen Sweeney on the third day she lived in Brentwood, when Mrs. Sweeney was outside the old Brentwood Library tending to the plants. Dunn had taken her children to the library for story hour.
“She told me she was married to the mayor, and somehow after that I met Joe,” said Dunn. “Joe was a people person. He just really enjoyed being out with people. I think he considered it a privilege to do what he did, even when someone disagreed with him. He realized getting to make some decisions on the future of this town was a privilege. He used to say something like, ‘We can agree to disagree, but we always do it agreeably,’” Dunn said.
“Joe Sweeney was always the city’s biggest cheerleader,” said City Administrator Kirk Bednar. “His tenure as a city commissioner will likely never be matched, and he could always be counted on to do what he thought was best for Brentwood. He was always very supportive of the city staff, and never missed an opportunity to express his thanks to any city employee he came across. I always cherished Joe’s humor and love of life, and I think it is safe to say that Brentwood would not be the great community it is today had it not been for Joe Sweeney.”
Former City Administrator Frank Clifton said that in some ways the city grew up with Joe Sweeney.
“Joe fell in love with the community, as it was when he came,” said Clifton. “I think in some cases as it grew, it was begrudgingly, but he recognized it wouldn’t stay that way forever. He realized the town was like a child growing up and realized it couldn’t stay the way it was as a baby, and he tried to shape it into the place it needed to be.
“He could have been the mayor of Boston as well as Brentwood with that Irish charm,” said Clifton, adding that following the death of his own father, Sweeney became a pseudo grandfather to Clifton’s own daughter.
Lauren Lexa, who spent almost 15 years covering the city of Brentwood for area newspapers, said Sweeney became more than just an elected official. He became a friend, someone who sent her birthday and Christmas cards for more than 20 years.
Sweeney was a storyteller with an accent that had a touch of his Irish heritage mixed with his Michigan roots.
Whether it was the wording of the story or his gaze into your eyes as he recounted the story, he held your attention like a magnet to steel. He could sing an Irish ditty at the drop of the hat or slightest opening, and he brought his colorful personality and his wit to every occasion.
“He was a teller of great stories and dreadful, corny jokes. And, at charity events, people would pay him not to sing Irish songs,” Lexa said, adding that sometimes Sweeney did the overbidding to be able to get the final word or note in.
Lexa remembers one of her favorite stories.
“On the 20th or 25th anniversary of his marriage to Maureen, he turned to her as they were midway across the Atlantic, headed to Ireland, and said, ‘What if your family doesn't like me?’ That trip was the first time he met Maureen's family,” Lexa said.
The couple was married for 57 years and had five children.
“He loved his city, his family and his faith. He pushed for only one unpopular decision that I can remember; he steered clear of taking unpopular positions. The one unpopular one he pushed would have allowed a cemetery in Brentwood. He always said you could do everything in Brentwood except be buried there, and that's still true,” Lexa said.
When Sweeney came to Brentwood as the city was being formed in the late 1960s, some may have thought politics wasn’t a real effort, but Sweeney took every election and every voter seriously. In the early 1970s, he even campaigned on horseback to solicit votes, according to stories.
Being a Brentwood city commissioner or the city’s mayor isn’t a full-time job, and it was a 35-year career with Shell Oil Co. that brought he and his family to Tennessee.
To current Mayor Betsy Crossley, that is one of the amazing aspects of Sweeney’s service to the community.
“He handled his personal job with the oil company at the same time when he was mayor of Brentwood when big decisions were being made, like Maryland Farms, Franklin Road, hiring of city personnel and expansion of departments,” Crossley said.
Alex Noble Jr., who served as a commissioner from 1989-1993, recalled Sweeney used his business acumen to serve the city well.
“He had skills that were amazing, not only people, but also financial and business skills that were so important to the city at that time,” Noble said. “He was kind of the granddad. He had been on commission forever, even back to when almost my father was in politics. He knew a tremendous amount of history.”
While Sweeney loved politics and his role as Brentwood’s top elected official, he had one love greater and that was his family. He took great pride in all his children and was struck particularly hard by the death of his son and namesake, Brian Joseph Sweeney Jr., in 2010.
Sweeney is survived by his wife of 57 years, Mary K. Sweeney; children, Kathleen (Johnny) Freeman, Sean (Joan) Sweeney, Kevin Sweeney and Bill (Jena) Sweeney; 12 grandchildren; five great-grandchildren; sister, Sharon (Bill) Quinn; and sister-in-law, Dell Sweeney.
A funeral mass will be held at 10 a.m. in the morning on Thursday, Sept. 12, at Holy Family Catholic Church, with the Rev. Joseph Patrick Breen officiating.
Visitation will be held from 8:30 a.m. until the service time at the church on Thursday. Pallbearers are Mr. Sweeney's grandsons. Honorary pallbearers are the Brentwood City Commission and City Staff. The family requests that memorial contributions be sent to Holy Family Catholic Church, St. Edward's Catholic School or to the Aquinas College.
Posted on: 9/11/2013