Brereton Wadsworth Bissell passed away peacefully on Saturday, March 5, 2022, at the age of 84. Bret leaves behind his loving wife Patricia Melcher Bissell, daughter Elizabeth Tyler Bissell, son-in-law Ihssane Khatib, grandson Sami Khatib, and brother Torre Rarden Bissell. Bret was predeceased in 2002 by his youngest brother, Silas Trim Bissell. A burial service will not be held. As true in life as in death, Bret did not desire fanfare.
Bret was born on November 3, 1937, in Phoenix, Arizona to Wadsworth Bissell and Hillary Rarden Bissell. Wadsworth was the grandson of Melville Bissell, the founder of the Bissell carpet sweeper company. In 1889, upon Melville's death, his wife Anna Bissell took over the company and is considered the first woman CEO in the United States. Despite his family lineage, Bret was raised by parents who embraced a life of civic responsibility and social justice reform. Wadsworth was a self-taught industrial engineer, architect, and artist. Hillary was a tireless civil rights activist, rising to become the Vice-president of the Michigan chapter of the NAACP. Due to her civil rights work, she is listed in Who's Who of American Women. Both Wadsworth and Hillary were lifetime friends of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Bret attended Earlham College, a Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana for two years before transferring to the University of Michigan. During his undergraduate years, he was a conscientious objector against the Vietnam War, was repeatedly arrested for protesting Jim Crow, and fought to end housing discrimination practiced by the University of Michigan based on religion and race. Bret was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and Chairman of the Social Action Committee. He worked on social justice issues alongside his brother Torre, also a University of Michigan student, and their mother. In 1963, he became a fourth-generation graduate of the university when he received his B.A. in Sociology.
In 1964, at the age of twenty-six, Bret received an Eleanor Roosevelt Foundation grant. He relocated to New Haven, Connecticut to begin work as an intern at the Human Relations Council of Greater New Haven. He would later go on to become their Executive Director. Over the next four decades his commitment to urban renewal was unwavering. As well as being an Executive Director, he also served as a Consumer Action Coordinator and Management Analyst for New Haven and surrounding towns for the Community Action Agency, Model Cities, United Way, and the Private Industry Council (PIC). In 2002 he retired as the Executive Director of the Fair Haven Housing Initiative. In this capacity, twenty apartments were renovated to become affordable housing on Richard Street, in the Fair Haven neighborhood.
Bret's penchant for civic responsibility continued after retirement. His family moved to the Fair Haven neighborhood in 2005 and his volunteer activities thrived. He started the Grand News, a volunteer staffed, monthly neighborhood newspaper. At its peak, circulation reached 7,000. Together Bret and Pat were active volunteers in Elm City Congregations Organized (ECCO), Chatham Square Neighborhood Association, Community Greenspace, and Urban Resources Initiative through Yale University. Life achievement was not measured by the typical standards of status or accolades. Rather, by how committed one was to the greater good.
Living for Bret was about authenticity, diligence, and devotion. The years he and Pat spent alongside one another, in beach chairs, reading during their summer Rhode Island getaways. Sponsoring a Moroccan Fiancé Visa, without doubt or hesitation, so their daughter could marry a young man they had never met. Witnessing with great joy, two years later, the wedding ceremony. Family and friends packed into the living room on Osborn Avenue while Pat played the piano for their grand entrance. Seventeen years later, admiring his son-in-law dressed to the nines in a suit, knowing how hard he worked to find his way. Spending the day reading on the back patio he built. Amused by his grandson going through an endless supply of Tupperware, building ecosystems for the crabs he caught in the Quinnipiac River. Always looking forward to the visits from his brother Torre, when he could no longer travel.
Bret and Pat worked side by side in collaboration for nearly fifty years to bring her talent and dedication for music to life. Together they developed curriculum, content, edited, and were business partners in a multitude of projects. Over the years they opened the studios Keynote Workshop and The Music Room. Their partnership culminated in the coauthoring of Classroom Keyboard: Play and Create Melodies with Chords published in 2017 by Rowman and Littlefield along with the websites classroomkeyboard.com and keyboardcosmos.net. In addition to writing and editing text, Bret contributed distinctive graphics to illustrate concepts and activities.
"A patient's job is to be patient," a favorite maxim Bret shared when asked how he was faring. From 1991 on, he navigated through varied and life-threatening health issues. This included contracting COVID in the winter of 2020 that exacerbated the plight of his health. Even while his life became more restrictive, he persevered, and his resolve did not fade. He was true to himself. He never wavered and his mind never faltered. He was the pragmatic, analytical, and profound thinker until his last breath.
Bret spent the final months of his life consulting on the day-to-day decisions for himself and those he loved, enjoying his wife's music arrangements, listening to his favorite childhood books being read to him by family, and recounting the memories only brothers could share. One afternoon, gazing at his grandson standing at the end of the nursing home bed, he announced "I'm imagining you escorting a young woman," fully knowing he would miss this rite of passage. He stated it without bitterness or sadness, but rather with a glint in his eye.
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