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Originally published Friday, March 25, 2011 at 10:13 PM

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Brenner Brothers Bakery founder 'a man of honor' | Obituary

Joe Brenner, a prominent and universally liked Seattle-area baker, businessman and brother to all, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at his home in Surprise, Ariz., where he had retired in 2006. He was 85.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The Yiddish word "mensch" is defined as "a person of integrity and honor." In the Jewish community, calling someone a "mensch" is the ultimate compliment.

"That's Uncle Joe," Bari Brenner said. "He was the definition of a mensch."

No close family member of Joe Brenner's — indeed, his niece Bari Brenner said, no one who ever met the man — can disagree.

Joe Brenner didn't open the long-standing Brenner Brothers Bakery and Delicatessen in Seattle and then Bellevue just to carry on the family baking tradition. He also did it to provide his siblings and cousins with jobs and livelihoods.

"Joe was the one who kept the Brenner family together for many, many years, first in making a business and providing jobs, and second, in hosting every single family get-together," said his sister, Phyllis Dolgoff, of Bellevue. "And let me tell you, this family is not small."

Mr. Brenner, a prominent and universally liked Seattle-area baker, businessman and brother to all, died Sunday of congestive heart failure at his home in Surprise, Ariz., where he had retired in 2006. He was 85.

Mr. Brenner, the youngest son of Austrian emigrants who had a Jewish bakery in Seattle just after the turn of the 20th century, knew the basics of preparing challah and bagels from an early age.

He graduated from Garfield High School and attended a culinary school on the East Coast, Dolgoff said. After a World War II-era stint in the Navy, he returned to Seattle and with brothers Charlie and Itsey opened a bakery and delicatessen in the Central Area.

In the early 1970s, they relocated the shop to Bellevue.

The brothers' shop was a mainstay in the Eastside's Jewish community. Mr. Brenner greeted every customer by name, according to his stepdaughter, Lisa Healey, of Surprise, Ariz., who worked at the bakery briefly.

On good days, regular customers would often hear Mr. Brenner's famously deep laugh, complete with coughing and sputtering. On bad days, they'd overhear vitriolic fights among the siblings.

But even during disagreements, Mr. Brenner remained committed to the business.

"Every Jewish holiday, they'd put a big table out front with traditional holiday food, and Joe would be out there greeting customers morning, noon and night," Healey said.

Mr. Brenner took in refugees from China and Russia, giving them jobs at the cash register or in the kitchen, Healey said.

He gave homeless passers-by a loaf of bread or even a full meal if they volunteered to sweep the walk.

Bari Brenner, of Castro Valley, Calif., said he took his nieces dress shopping at boutiques and department stores and, unlike the girls' mothers, didn't set a price limit.

Once, Healey found a crumpled-up letter at his desk and saw that it was from a mother in the South. The mother wrote to thank Mr. Brenner for the money he'd sent her after reading in the news that her son had been lynched.

"He gave and gave to everyone — to anyone — and didn't ask for anything in return," said his wife, Joan Brenner.

Even after the brothers' bakery shut its doors in the late 1990s, Mr. Brenner never lost his giving spirit. He frequently visited the Caroline Kline Galland nursing home in Seattle and baked for the residents there, many of whom were old high-school friends.

"Hundreds of people would quote me on this: I have never known anyone as loved as Joe Brenner," Healey said.

Mr. Brenner also is survived by brothers Charlie Brenner, of Bellevue, and Mark Brenner of Surprise, Ariz.; and sister Yetta Brenner, of Kirkland; sons Adam Brenner, of New York City, and David Brenner, of Seattle; daughters Janice Newman and Cathy Brenner, both of Renton; and several grandchildren.

He also leaves behind adopted daughter Fritzi Vyzis, of Florida, for whose children, Dmitri, Mia and Carl, he served as grandfather; and nieces, nephews, cousins and their families scattered throughout the U.S.

A memorial service will be 10 a.m. May 8, at Temple B'nai Torah, 15727 N.E. Fourth Street, Bellevue.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations to Hospice of the Valley, 1510 E. Flower St., Phoenix, AZ 85014.

Jill Kimball: 206-464-2108 or jkimball@seattletimes.com

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