To many faculty, staff and students, Therese Brennock is a decorated educator who has dedicated years to building Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Special Education Department. Brennock is best known for launching the school’s work-study program with Rush Oak Park Hospital for students with social-emotional disabilities.
She’s a fast talker, a go-getter who lives for long work days, and is by no means a quitter. Brennock retired in 2015 but returned to OPRF months later as a job coach and teaching assistant for the high school’s Community Integration Transition Education (CITE) program, which helps students with special needs adapt to life after high school.
And if you ask Brennock where she gets all this energy, this will to work, she’d tell you she’s always been that way. Back in high school (at OPRF), Brennock was a “B” student, a social butterfly who picked up a part-time job at Señor Taco, a local restaurant on Madison Street in Oak Park that has since transformed into a popular fast-food chain, Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen.
“We fairly ran the place with this guy who owned it,” said Brennock, adding she quickly learned the ins and outs of business management and customer service. She remembers working about 20 hours a week to help her family make ends meet — with shifts ending at 11 p.m. — and enjoying every minute of it.
“I was a big worker bee, but I did go out a lot whenever I could,” recalled Brennock, laughing. “I went to as many parties as I possibly could as I got older, like junior and senior year.”
A 1977 OPRF graduate, Brennock is one of 49 alumni — and counting — who are working at their alma mater to uplift and inspire the next generation of students and to give back to the community that helped shape them.
As Brennock looked back at her high school years, she remained candid about being an average student who “didn’t care about school,” just wanted to work and make money. The only classes she liked were her business classes and recalled being able to type 60 words a minute, a hot skill that made her a prime candidate for the workplace.
She also honed her abilities to talk to people. She learned better hands-on instead of being a bookworm, a trait she takes into account with her own students.
Faith Cole, another OPRF alumna, echoed Brennock.
“I wasn’t this amazing student, but I did love school,” said Cole, who graduated from OPRF in 1999 and is the school’s newest director of student services.
Throughout high school, Cole was on different sports teams, including basketball and track & field. She even joined the water polo team because she “thought it was easy, and I’d be good at it — both were wrong.” Cole said her coaches and teachers played an integral role in her growth, as they often saw “past what I was trying to do and expected more from me, but then also met me where I was at.”
And that’s a message she relays to her colleagues now.
“We do things when we need to be loved,” Cole said, noting she sees different versions of herself in other students, extending a bridge of compassion and empathy.
Melody Brown, an administrative assistant, and John Costopoulos, a science teacher, also spoke about their experiences working in a place that constantly reminds them of their former selves.
Like Brennock and Cole, Brown and Costopoulos remembered high school as a pivotal moment for them. Brown was a cheerleader who loved celebrating Homecoming Week and going to school dances, and Costopoulos, a self-taught guitar player, hung out with other students in band and orchestra.
“In the back of my head, I always hope that the experiences they have, whether in my class or other classes or activities, are going to be the things that [the students] don’t forget,” said Costopoulos, who graduated from OPRF in 1980 and began teaching at his alma mater in 2003. “I want them to have those experiences where they remember.”
And their journeys back to OPRF are nothing but short stories.
Brown, a 1994 OPRF graduate, said she went to her niece’s basketball game once and an OPRF cheerleading coach spotted her reciting along with the chants. That coach invited Brown to help with practice.
“I came to practice Monday, and I have been coaching since then,” said Brown. She has been a cheerleading coach for roughly 17 years.
Costopoulos, on the other hand, came back to Oak Park to be near his family and took a substitute teaching position at OPRF, which later turned into a full-time gig.
As they continued to take a stroll down memory lane, some of them offered a piece of advice.
“Be stress-free and have fun,” Brown said. “We were so dumb thinking about boys, and we put so much stress on things that don’t matter. Just enjoy your friend group, and do things, and be part of the school. Make changes.”
Others like Cole kept it simple.
“You’re enough, and you’re worth it,” she said.
Calling all alums
Therese Brennock, a board member of the Oak Park and River Forest High School Alumni Association, and John Costopoulos, the association’s liaison, are encouraging other OPRF alumni to step forward, connect with and become part of the organization. To learn more about the association, visit https://www.oprfhs.org/alumni.