WAYNESBURG – Shortly after Brian Tennant was hailed as a hero for helping to save several lives during a terrible house fire in Waynesburg that killed two children in January 2010, the borough patrolman received grim news about his health.
Migraine headaches he had been experiencing led him to go to the doctor, where he received the shocking diagnosis that he had an inoperable tumor growing on his brain stem.
But while on sick leave from the police department as he was undergoing medical treatment, Tennant couldn’t stay away from helping others in need. When another fire raged in the borough a few months later, Tennant came to the scene and helped the responding police officers and firefighters, just as he was in the midst of preparing to undergo a revolutionary treatment in Texas.
“That’s the kinda guy he was. He was involved,” retired Waynesburg police chief Tim Hawfield said. “This community will never fully appreciate what a good servant they had in him.”
The community rallied around Tennant as he beat the grim odds doctors gave him that he wouldn’t survive longer than five years. He eventually returned to work as a borough police officer, and successfully ran for Greene County sheriff in 2013, winning re-election two years ago.
Tennant died Wednesday afternoon while undergoing treatment at UPMC-Shadyside hospital in Pittsburgh. He was 35.
“Others would’ve quit long before he did,” Hawfield said Thursday. “And I don’t mean just in law enforcement.”
Hawfield and others remembered Tennant as a fighter, devoted husband and father of four sons, and as a public servant who was passionate about the community. Tennant retired in January from the Waynesburg-Franklin Volunteer Company, where he served for 17 years. He also was a medic with EMS Southwest.
“Brian was a good firefighter until he had his medical condition,” Waynesburg-Franklin fire Chief Jeff Marshall said. “He did everything he could to help. He was a good guy.”
Marshall, who also serves as the county’s chief clerk, noted how Tennant worked with the county to upgrade the courthouse’s security and expand the duties of the sheriff’s office.
“He realized with the limited law enforcement resources in the county, if he was able to assist while performing the normal sheriff’s duties, he wanted his deputies to do it,” Marshall said. “He did everything he could to assist the other law enforcement agencies in the county.”
Marshall said even while suffering more medical issues over the past few months, Tennant continued to work, sometimes from his hospital bed. Marshall and Tennant communicated more recently through text messages Feb. 1 to discuss staffing changes.
After winning re-election in 2017, Tennant expressed optimism about what the office could accomplish in his second term as sheriff. While the role of county sheriffs is limited in Pennsylvania, Tennant wanted to expand their powers to give deputies more law enforcement duties. He also worked to implement the Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, program in the county’s five school districts in an attempt to combat drug abuse through prevention.
“I want to try to continue and push and lobby for legislation for investigative powers for sheriffs in Pennsylvania,” Tennant said after his election night victory in 2017. “It’s a critical element, especially for more rural areas like Greene County to have that additional law enforcement presence. Just because we’re small doesn’t mean we don’t have a voice.”
Those who knew him remembered Tennant for his bravery, both in law enforcement and in his battle with brain cancer.
During that January 2010 fire that killed two children, Tennant was credited with preventing the loss of more lives. He was on patrol on a chilly winter morning when he saw smoke coming from a house on North Richhill Street and radioed for help. He then ran toward the house when he heard screams for help, coaxing two young girls to jump into his arms.
Tennant attempted to enter the burning house to save others, but was turned away by the fire. Two children, Noah James Havrilesko, 11, and Ava Naomi Holbert, 13, died in the blaze. Hawfield said their deaths haunted Tennant.
“It weighed on him terribly,” Hawfield said, “like it did all of us.”
While dealing with the emotions of that fire, Tennant was facing a battle of his own. Weeks later, he was diagnosed with Infiltrating Pontine Astrocytoma, a form of brain cancer typically found in children. Tennant was 26 at the time, and there were few clinical trials for adults.
“They basically told me, ‘You are going to die,’ and I wasn’t willing to accept it so I started looking for other options,” Tennant said in 2012 while recounting his story.
He and his wife, Jessica, searched for another way. After being rejected by many American hospitals because of his age and with a trip to China scheduled as a last resort, they eventually found a clinic in Houston, Texas, that was willing to treat Tennant. The treatment was grueling, but Tennant’s tumor responded and eventually shrank.
“It was a terrible struggle in 2010 and 2011,” Hawfield said. “But he came out of that and there were other things to accomplish.”
Tennant returned to his duties as a borough patrolman and worked with a police dog. He left the force in 2013 to run for sheriff.
Marcus Simms, who has served as Tennant’s chief deputy since 2015, became emotional while discussing the sheriff’s life and career.
“He certainly dedicated his life for serving,” Simms said.
Simms is expected to serve as interim sheriff. It was not immediately known if there would be a special election before the sheriff’s seat is open again in 2021.
Tennant was open about his diagnosis a decade ago, along with recent health struggles, posting photographs of himself following procedures at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, W.Va., on his Twitter page last August. He also tweeted a post about how much it meant for him to be able to attend school orientation for three of his four sons.
“One of the most difficult things I have ever done is to attend my 3 oldest sons school orientations in a wheelchair. They were all given the choice to have me attend in a wheelchair or via FaceTime and they all selected for me to be there with them. This is only temporary,” Tennant tweeted Aug. 21.
“He held his head up. I’m proud to know him,” Hawfield said. “I’m proud he was one of my officers.”
The funeral is set for 11 a.m. Saturday at First Baptist Church in Waynesburg, and will be followed by a police escort to Greene County Memorial Park. Waynesburg-Franklin Township Volunteer Fire Company will hold a memorial service at 7 p.m. Friday in the church, followed at 7:30 p.m. by Masonic Services by Waynesburg Lodge No. 153.
Gov. Tom Wolf ordered that all Pennsylvania flags at public buildings or grounds be lowered to half-staff Saturday to honor Tennant.