Charles G. Brenke, Jr., a longtime resident of Vancleave, died on Saturday, October 2. He was 90 years old.
He was born in Hattiesburg to Charles G. Brenke, Sr. and his wife Annie Kate Brenke (nee Thornhill) on December 14, 1930. He was the 4th of 5 children. Growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, he was known as Buddy to family and friends, and formed lifelong habits of thrift, hard work and self-reliance. He graduated from Sacred Heart High School, attended Mississippi Southern College for a semester and, upon leaving Mississippi Southern, worked a single day on the Mississippi Central Railroad. The story goes that this single day of non-stop coal shoveling changed his mind about becoming a train engineer.
In the spring of 1948, Charlie traveled to New Orleans where he enlisted in the US Navy. He completed recruit training in San Diego, California. While there he was told by fellow recruits that he should visit a nearby town they pronounced “La Hoya.” He waited at the bus stop for a while and remarked there were a lot of buses for “La Jolla” but none for “La Hoya.”
He went on to join the prestigious Submarine Corps, and served on USS Sea Robin, USS Runner, USS Razorback, USS Grenadier (as a plank owner) and the Submarine School Staff in Groton, Connecticut where he taught trigonometry. (This gift for teaching complex subjects overlapped with other areas of his life, and included devising math word problems for his captive children on long car trips.) In October 1962, while serving on USS Runner, he and his fellow crew were deployed to the Western Atlantic where they supported the successful enactment of a “naval quarantine” of Soviet cargo ships that were transporting nuclear missiles to the Island of Cuba; the action is widely credited as averting a larger conflict. Over his 21-year Navy career, he received the European Occupation Medal, 6 consecutive Good Conduct Medals, the Navy Achievement Medal, and a Bronze Star on the National Defense Service Medal. When he retired, he wore the gold chevrons of a Senior Chief Fire Control Technician.
After he retired from the Navy in 1970, Charlie went to work for (what is now Huntington Ingalls Industries) Ingalls Shipbuilding, first as a planner on the submarine overhaul programs and later as a logistician supporting CG, LHA and DDG programs. The large number and complex warfighting capabilities ships he helped put to sea played a decisive role in winning the Cold War.
Upon retiring from Ingalls in 1993, he started a third career as a commercial beekeeper, at one time keeping over 90 hives across central Jackson County and selling the gathered honey at hardware, drug and groceries stores, as well as the occasional nail salon. Around 2015, he revealed that after 20+ years of full-time beekeeping, he had finally been stung in every place a man could be stung. His company turned a modest profit every until it closed a month ago. It was called “Vancleave’s Finest” and this exemplified him.
Charlie was an accomplished woodsman, fisherman and naturalist, with deep knowledge of nature in Eastern Canada, New England, Virginia, Mississippi, the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. He was known for his insatiable appetite to learn and discover, gaining deep expertise in botany, mycology, bird watching, gardening, horticulture and woodworking. He was at home in the woods, where he knew the Latin names of most plants and trees, as well as mushrooms and lichens. His birding life list had over 300 birds spanning North and Central America and Western Europe. Life sized carvings of shorebirds and ducks were his typical woodcarving projects. In gardening, he extolled the importance of fertilizer, explaining to his daughter-in-law Ariane Schraepen “plants are like people... they don't just drink water... They also need nourishment.” He was a superb rifle shot who took several trophy white tail deer, and a genuine artist with a shotgun, with spectacular ability to shoot birds on the wing. (He introduced his Canadian friends and relatives to this novel idea while hunting partridge in the early 1950s). When visiting Canada, he often made voyages with local lobster and shark fisherman into the Bay of Fundy.
He loved country music and dancing, but despite significant ambition, had minimal talent for singing. He was exceptionally handsome but had no sartorial flair. He was a lifelong Roman Catholic. Consistent with his rank of Navy rank of Senior Chief, he advocated for a robust US foreign policy, usually involving carpet bombing, though in a nod to his naturalist friends, he twice voted for Green Party presidential
candidate Ralph Nader.
He was far from perfect, having minimal diplomacy skills, tolerance of fools and in his later life (while attending dinner parties), ability to resist good red wine. His moral views could be black and white; he believed color in ethics was largely a distraction. He could be stubborn, had a quick temper, and was a mentor to many young men in the art of swearing.
Yet he was also a man of absolute integrity. He told the truth as he knew it. Just so, he was once dismissed from a federal jury for uttering an obvious truth in the voir dire process. His words and actions were always in absolute alignment. He was deeply charitable, always willing to help those who were less fortunate. He was also practical: he charged his children full price for honey. He was known to make change from the collection plate at church.
He delighted in children. In parenting his own, he often referred to himself as a benevolent dictator, always embracing his role as father, guide, advocate and role model, but always adding that in situations
involving discipline, he was not there to be a friend. Still, his bark was usually louder than his bite: he often told the children with whom he interacted (in a stern voice) that he would not stand for their “nub stuff” – his personal phrase for childhood silliness – when he actually reveled in it.
He is survived by his beloved wife of 62 years, Margaret; his daughter Karen, her husband Buddy Clarke and their son Harry; his son John, his wife Kelly Ellis and children Max and Annie Kate, and Kate’s partner
Mattias de Groot; and his daughter Caroline, her husband Ron Knight and their children Sarah Margaret and Charlotte Elizabeth. He is also survived by his sister Evelyn Smith and his brother Ed, and numerous nieces and nephews. He is preceded in death by his eldest son, Michael Edward; his parents, Charles and Annie Kate; and his sisters Jeanne Roseberry and Dorothy Scheppelman.
A visitation will be held from 1:00 to 3:00 pm on Friday, October 8 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Vancleave, followed by a Funeral Mass at 3:00 pm. Charlie’s ashes will be placed beside his son Michael at the Roman Catholic Cemetery at the Mechanic Settlement, Kings County, New Brunswick, Canada.
Bradford-O’Keefe is honored to serve the family of Charles Brenke Jr. View and sign online tribute at www.bokfh.com