When George Tagtmeyer needed help at his full-service gas station in Higginsville, Mo., (pop. 4,682) in 1967, he turned to the Higginsville Habilitation Center, a state facility for developmentally disabled people.
“People tried to discourage me, though, saying the community wouldn’t accept it,” Tagtmeyer says. Few developmentally disabled residents were working in Higginsville at the time.
But Helen Schwarzer, a center employee, knew exactly whom to refer for the job. Jimmie Brennan, 25 at the time, had done an excellent job in the housekeeping department at the center. “Although Jimmie couldn’t read or write, he was willing to work,” she recalls.
“I started on Sept. 15, 1967, at 1 o’clock,” recalls Brennan, now 59. “I wasn’t scared.”
As the first developmentally disabled person placed in the community, Brennan was unaware of the precedent he was setting. At that time, few developmentally disabled people lived on their own, so it was a challenge for Brennan to find a place to live. Schwarzer, however, convinced a cousin to rent an apartment to him. “He lived there 15 years,” she says.
Tagtmeyer and Ted Haile taught Brennan to wash windows, wash cars, pump gas, and check tires. Brennan’s friendly, helpful attitude immediately made him a hit with customers and the community.
Passersby still holler, “Hey, Jimmie!” as they hail him on the street. Other residents visit with him at Dante’s Cafe or stop by the station to sit a spell. “Everybody in town knows Jimmie,” Schwarzer says.
Over the years, as word spread what a wonderful worker Brennan was, other jobs became available. For nearly 30 years, he worked at night at the local bowling alley, fetching drinks and snacks for patrons. He quit there four years ago when he started cleaning the Higginsville Senior Citizens Center in the evening. He also cleans two offices on Saturday and has cleaned Faith Baptist Church—which he attends—every Sunday night for 34 years.
But come Sunday afternoon, you often can find him at Schwarzer’s house watching a ballgame.
A Kansas City Royals fan, Brennan was selected to represent the town on “Higginsville Night at the Royals” on Aug. 15, 1992. “The community really rallied behind him,” Schwarzer recalls. Nearly 700 townspeople attended the game to watch Brennan throw out the first pitch.
“I liked doing it,” he beams.
When it comes to selling tickets for charitable causes, no one outsells Brennan. For years, he sold more than 1,500 tickets annually to the local Knights of Columbus’ country fair. “All the time, he was the best seller,” says Bobby Beck, a Knights of Columbus member. “He wasn’t afraid to approach people about buying tickets, even out-of-town customers who stopped at the station.”
Brennan’s apartment is adorned with plaques and citations for top seller of tickets for the Knights of Columbus, American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Habilitation Center. In 1975, he was named Missouri Volunteer of the Year.
His landlord, Tim Thurman, tells how good-hearted Brennan is. “When the station stopped selling gas, Jimmie would go across the street to a self-service gas station to show people how to pump gas. They didn’t know how because he had always done it for them.”
Haile bought the station from Tagtmeyer in 1985. Gas no longer is sold there, but Haile does auto repairs and Brennan washes cars. Over one bay, a sign says, “Jimmy’s Wash Room, Enter at Your Own Risk, Water Hose in Use.”
“He’s a hard worker,” says Haile of Brennan’s nearly 35 years of employment at the station. “He helped make this the best service station in Higginsville.”
When Tagtmeyer remarried in 1991, he knew who his best man would be. Brennan stood up for Tagtmeyer just as Tagtmeyer had taken a stand for him years earlier. “We gave him the opportunity, and he was willing to learn,” Tagtmeyer says.
“Jimmie’s success opened up job opportunities for other developmentally disabled people to be accepted into the community,” Schwarzer adds. “I never doubted it would work.”