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Claude Brenner at 86; MIT board member and ‘Quiz Kid’

Claude Brenner, of Lexington, was active in MIT activities, including service on the MIT Corporation.
Claude Brenner, of Lexington, was active in MIT activities, including service on the MIT Corporation.Justin Knight Photography/Photographer

Claude Brenner was 12½ in 1940 and already a high school freshman when he made the first of what would be dozens of appearances on “Quiz Kids,” a radio show that quickly became a household name.

“I was two years ahead in school, younger than most of my classmates,” he told the Globe in 1983. “At school there were both approbation and envy. We had to live up to it and live it down at the same time. As one of my fellow quiz kids said, ‘We had to be both abnormally brilliant and brilliantly normal.’ ”

He joined as a panelist for the Christmas Day broadcast in 1940, and the show became a stepping stone to the rest of his life. Mr. Brenner was living in Chicago and his “Quiz Kids” appearances helped secure a scholarship to Lake Forest Academy, north of the city, which led him to MIT.

“If I hadn’t been on ‘Quiz Kids,’ I would never have gone to Lake Forest,” he said in 1983, “and who knows how different my life would have been.”

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Mr. Brenner, an energy company executive and consultant who formerly served as an MIT Corporation member and as president of the MIT Alumni Association, died of a heart attack March 7 at the Cambridge home of his longtime companion, Anne Lowell. He lived in Lexington and was staying with her while recuperating from pacemaker surgery. A storyteller known for his lively anecdotes, he was 86 and had been joking and laughing until just before he died.

“We use the word gentleman kind of loosely,” Lowell said, “but he was a true gentleman in all senses of that word.”

They were a couple for 14 years, after meeting in Maine, where they attended different weddings and stayed at the same inn, in rooms with adjoining balconies. She was reading and through the latticework separating them “I heard a very pleasant voice asking me if it was a good book,” she recalled. He lived in Lexington, she in Cambridge, and they had dinner that night. “We just talked and talked,” she said. “I’ve never known anybody who made me laugh so much. He was a great soul.”

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Mr. Brenner, she added, “had so many passions. He loved his family. He loved music and the arts. He loved to write light verse in the Ogden Nash tradition. His intellect was astonishing and fascinating because there was nothing he wasn’t interested in. To learn something every day was de rigueur with him.”

That curiosity fired his intellect from boyhood. In an essay for an MIT publication posted online, Mr. Brenner noted that Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Sherry Turkle “determined that young people who choose a career in science or technology were first motivated by an object in their childhood.” He drew inspiration from three South African Airways planes he saw while visiting Johannesburg’s airport with his mother and sister one afternoon when he was 8.

“The wonder of those machines sparked a passion for model airplanes and a determination to be an aeronautical engineer,” he wrote.

The younger of two siblings, Mr. Brenner was born in Pretoria and lived at first in a country village. He was 8 months old when his father died. Mr. Brenner later moved with his mother and sister to Pretoria and then to Johannesburg. His mother’s chiropractic studies brought them to the north side of Chicago in 1939.

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Little more than a year later, Mr. Brenner was one of the “Quiz Kids,” who were chosen for their high intelligence, personality, and sense of humor. A panel of five competed on each show, and the three with the highest scores were joined by two others the following week.

Mr. Brenner had wanted to attend Lake Forest Academy, but his mother couldn’t afford the tuition. A Lake Forest graduate on the “Quiz Kids” staff helped secure a scholarship, however, and he spent his junior and senior years at the prep school.

He received a partial scholarship to MIT, too, and arrived in 1944, a week before turning 16. The $100 war bonds he received for each “Quiz Kids” appearance covered other costs. “I set out to prove that being a quiz kid wasn’t the beginning and end of my existence,” Mr. Brenner told the Globe in 1983.

At MIT, he studied in the aeronautics and astronautics department, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1947 and a master’s in 1948. He also joined the glee club and drama club, and wrote for the student newspaper, where he was editor in chief his senior year. “I flourished here. I loved it here,” Mr. Brenner said in a pair of oral history interviews MIT conducted in 2008 and 2009.

After graduating, he moved first to South Africa and then to England, for a job with the de Havilland aircraft company. Returning to the United States, he worked in the high tech and energy fields, serving as an executive with Northeast Solar Energy Center in Cambridge and establishing the consulting firm Commonwealth Energy Group.

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Mr. Brenner traveled for work and for pleasure, including a trip around the world about 15 years ago and a more recent visit to South Africa, where he still had relatives.

“He wanted things neat and tidy — I think it was the engineer in him — so he wanted to visit every state capital, which he did,” Lowell said. Mr. Brenner, she added, “was a great keeper of lists,” which included the tail numbers of every plane he flew on and the names of Massachusetts municipalities where he had dined.

“He loved listing off all the cities and towns in Massachusetts,” she said, and if he awoke in the middle of the night, he would list them alphabetically as a way of getting back to sleep. “He found it soothing.”

A service has been held for Mr. Brenner, who in addition to Lowell leaves his son, Paul of Coto de Caza, Calif.; his daughter, Harriet Severino of Somerville; four grandchildren; and his former wife, Mary Petschek of Lexington.

Mr. Brenner was retired, in a loose sense of the word. “He liked to say he was between engagements,” Lowell said. “In his retirement he became increasingly busy with MIT.”

Along with his work with the MIT Corporation and the alumni association, he served as the 1947 class president through all reunions and on dozens of MIT committees and panels, among them the Educational Council, the Council for the Arts at MIT. The alumni association presented him with the Bronze Beaver Award for his service.

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Though that early “Quiz Kids” experience paved the way to what followed, Mr. Brenner said in the MIT oral history that he had expressed misgivings about joining the program in an essay that was part of the application process.

“I wrote and said, with all sincerity, that I wasn’t sure I did want to be a quiz kid because as I listened to that program, those kids were very bright,” he said. “And they were going to be tough competition.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.