Sunday, May 7, 2017


My kid brother, Raymond, will be 80 years old next month. A little old to be called a ‘kid’ to be sure, but the habit of a lifetime is hard to shake.

More than forty years ago, I persuaded Ray to abandon his career at the Detroit Edison Company and come to Lansing to help me establish the Thomas M. Cooley Law School.

I needed someone who knew what to do with tools. Ray undertook the job of managing our physical plant. Every nook and cranny.

Few people realize the contribution Ray Brennan has made to the revitalization of downtown Lansing. Under his careful guidance and minute attention to detail the mostly abandoned Masonic Temple was reinvented as a classroom building; the old J. C. Penny department store was converted into a magnificent law library; and a commonplace fourteen story downtown office building was re-invented as the spectacular ten story Cooley Center.

Ray retired from Cooley more than a dozen years ago, but true to the teaching of his father, he has kept himself busy. One avocation is to serve as Chairman and Secretary of a distinguished group of over fifty retired gentlemen who play golf together and call themselves the FOF. For popular consumption they translate that acronym as “Friendly Old Fellows” but Ray tells me there is a more colloquial, flatulent rendering.

Still, golf being a seasonal sport, brother Ray managed to discover and become enmeshed in an activity that knows no season: the science of genealogy, which has led him to compiling a massive database of information about people to whom he (and I) are related.

Hardly a day passes that I, and indeed all of our family, do not receive a copy of an email from Ray to a near or distant relative who is celebrating a birthday or wedding anniversary.

Ray has a million stories. Yesterday, as we watched the one hundred forty-third running of the Kentucky Derby on TV, he regaled us with the tale of a distant relative named Noah Armstrong. Born in Kingston Ontario, Armstrong migrated to Minnesota and from there to Montana in search of his fortune.

He found it in silver mining, discovering what came to be known as the Hecla mine and ultimately becoming a founder of the Hecla Consolidated Mining Company.          He did well enough to establish a large ranch he dubbed Doncaster, and to take up the avocation of horse breeding. Not one to be satisfied with half measures, Armstrong constructed a massive, round, three story horse barn. It has been described as resembling a wedding cake. Boasting an indoor race track, the building is now listed on the national registry of historic places.

More recently, you can find Armstrong’s barn on the Internet, where it is advertised as the Round Barn at Twin Bridges, a popular site for wedding receptions. 

But back in the day of its use as an equestrian residence Armstrong had a mare named Interpose who was pregnant by a Hider Ali, a thoroughbred stud.

Armstrong was traveling in Spokane, Washington in 1886, when he received the news that Interpose was foaling. He promptly and whimsically dubbed his new stallion “Spokane.”

Three years later, in 1889, the year in which Montana was admitted to the Union, Montana foaled and bred Spokane won the Kentucky Derby. His time was 2:23.50, a record for the mile and a half distance, which still stands today. It will never be eclipsed because the Kentucky Derby was changed to a mile and a quarter in 1896. Spokane remains the only Montana horse to win the “most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Spokane went off at 16.4 to one and paid $34 on a two dollar bet. One bettor did particularly well, as he wagered $5,000 on the race. He collected $170,000. His name was Frank James. And, yes, he was the brother of Jesse James, the infamous nineteenth century American bandit.

Fascinating how the tentacles of genealogy can connect us with people, places and events. Brother Ray has learned much and made many friends through his exploration, and he has enriched all of us with his discoveries. In many ways, the pay off has been as bountiful for Ray Brennan as it was for Frank James.


  1. love it. A great story. Your family is probably related to everyone but a few Greeks.

  2. Love your Paul Harvey-ish blogs and
    another "the rest of the story." Good day!