It’s a Wonderful Life (For Tom Brown on his 90th Birthday)

My father is celebrating his 90th birthday on Sunday, July 5th, and the night before fireworks will be set off in his honor all across America!

Daddy told me recently he didn’t think he would live past 73. So while he may not be a very good prognosticator, he still has much to recommend him. That got me to thinking, and in the spirit of my 60 Lessons from 60 Years, I’ve pulled together 90 things about the wonderful life of Tom Brown on the occasion of his 90th birthday.  Just like George Bailey in the movie of the same name, life for so many people would be much the poorer if Tom Brown had not lived these 90 years (and counting!).

These are all true, even if they aren’t all factual.  If you have others you would like to add, please list them in the comments section below.  (And thanks to Candice, Claire, and Andrew for their contributions to this list.  Besides being a pretty terrific dad, he’s an amazing grandfather and father-in-law.)

1.  Rode his bike to work when biking to work wasn’t cool.

2. Still in love with the woman he married 65 years ago yesterday.

Helen and Tom Brown, 1950

My parents – Helen and Tom Brown – in 1950

3.  Rewired our house on Main Street by himself.  (I didn’t get those genes, as I can barely screw in a lightbulb!)  Of course, Daddy’s college degree from Vanderbilt was in electrical engineering, and his entire work career was with the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), so maybe that’s to be expected.

4. Gave up smoking cigars 60 years ago on March 4, 1955 – my birthday – saying that he “couldn’t afford two expensive habits at the same time.”  I always thought that was a great line.  However, when he was more reflective, he would say that the real reason was that he wanted to set a good example for his children.

5.  Is a voracious reader, and passed along his love of books to (most) of his children.  He is also a great “gifter” of books (if that’s a word). If he thinks you’ll enjoy one, he’ll just give it to  you.

6.  Drove around in a VW microbus before Arlo Guthrie and Alice’s Restaurant made them cool.

7.  Served our country in WWII.

Navy portrait

Navy portrait from 1945

8.  Will always welcome a stranger.

9.  Has a great smile and uses it often.

10.  They know what he wants to eat the second he walks in the door at the City Cafe.

11.  When he gives his grandchildren cash for birthday or Christmas gifts, he will add the admonition, “Don’t spend it all in one place.”

12.  We saw many a power station and power-generating dam on family vacations.  And you could pretty much count on him telling you where the 500 KV line you were driving under at any point both originated and ended.

500 KV Lines

500 KV Transmission lines (photo credit: Wikipedia)

13.  Has amassed an impressive theological library.

14.  Is a good friend and stays in touch with people.

15.  Swims every morning at the YMCA…and then has a doughnut and coffee with the crew and other patrons.

16.  Has great looking legs.  Might have something to do with #15.

17. Shamelessly flirts with nurses and physical therapists.  That’s a good thing, because it is a sign he’s feeling better.

18.  Can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but has always enjoyed great musicians such as Lena Horne and Teddy Wilson.

19.  Can float on his back for hours.

20.  Took a two-year sabbatical from his long-time church while in his 80s to attend the local Black Baptist Church, because he thought it had more spirit and “showed a little emotion.”  He had to leave after a couple of years because he couldn’t keep up with the gymnastics that are part of a truly participatory church.

21.  Had great hair as a kid, and didn’t mind it when his children kidded him about it after he went bald.

Tom Brown

Tom Brown as a child

22. Even as he is growing older and is hard of hearing, he is just happy to be among family and friends.

23.  Fell on his kitchen floor, ended up with two broken legs, and waited several hours for someone to find him. How did they know something was wrong? He hadn’t made it to Sunday evening church services!  I told him he needed a better story than he simply tripped while walking toward the sink.

24.  Does the crossword puzzle everyday. Usually in ink. It is a habit that both Andrew and Claire have begun.

25.  Has an awesome collection of suspenders…and wears them.

Daddy's Suspenders

Daddy’s suspenders

26.  Is aging gracefully, and doesn’t burden you with stories about his health or illnesses.

27.  Lent his car to his grandchildren before they had a license so they could practice driving in a mega-church parking lot.  I was glad to learn that those suburban mega-churches are good for something.

28.  Allowed all five of his children to grow into the people they are, instead of trying to force us into any preconceived molds. The consternation we each caused our parents in different ways and at different times (except for Debbie, who was always the perfect child) must have been hard to live through. But he stuck with his principles.

Tom Brown Family

Debbie, Joe, Carol, Daddy, Mom, Steve, and DJB around 1974…the country-rock band era

29.  Took out his first subscription to Mother Jones magazine while in his 70s.

30.  Really understands the importance of the separation of church and state, and writes killer Letters to the Editor on the subject, to help educate his neighbors in Middle Tennessee.

31.  Does the right thing without telling anyone of what he’s done.

32.  Keeps his mother’s memory alive by sharing stories and sayings that he remembers from his childhood.  One of my favorites (which I remember Grandmother saying to me on occasion) was “Make yourself useful as well as ornamental.”

Mary Dixie and George Brown

Mary Dixie Bearden Brown and George Alma Brown – my grandparents

33.  Still follows his mother’s advice and takes his hat off while indoors.

34.  Has modeled how to be a wonderful husband and father. So many things I do in both roles, I learned from Daddy.

Daddy and DJB, 1955

Tom and David Brown, 1955

35.  Loves to read funny stories from the newspaper out loud to his family at the dining room table.

36.  The Rev. Will B. Dunn is among his favorite Baptist preachers.

Will B. Dunn

The Rev. Will B. Dunn as featured in Kudzu by Doug Marlette

37. Ensured that his children addressed the two African-American cooks who worked for our Baptist church in Murfreesboro as Mr. and Mrs. Smith – and not by their first names as so many others did.  This sign of respect came from his parents. Although he grew up during a time in the South when the races were segregated and his parents were part of that culture, he has written that he never heard them speak insultingly to any black person.  His neighborhood was in the old part of Franklin and was an integrated neighborhood, and some of his playmates were black boys in the neighborhood.

38.  Was the ticket taker and back-up projectionist at his hometown theatre while growing up – and he returned there in 2011 as the local Heritage Foundation was beginning a restoration. I remember hearing those stories when I was young. Candice and I were delighted to buy a seat in his honor as part of the restoration.

Tom Brown at the Franklin Theatre

Tom Brown at the Lighting of the Marquee at the Franklin Theatre

39.  Isn’t afraid to tell his own story honestly.  He once sent the following out to his family:  “When I was young I had a poor self-image.  I was skinny, not athletic, wore glasses and was not really accomplished in any area.  I did fairly well in my studies.  As a result I compensated for this by criticizing others.  This bad attitude was called to my attention in a peculiar way while I was in the Navy.  One day a man said to me, ‘Brown, why do you think everybody but you is full of shit?’  He expressed it very well.”

40.  While he self-identifies as a blue-dog Democrat, in reality he is a die-hard liberal by today’s standards, and he is not afraid to speak his mind.

41.  Repaired our washer and dryer by himself rather than calling Sears.  My long-time friend (and now preservation colleague) Van West said that every time he came to our house and entered through the back door, Daddy had the parts of the washer or dryer spread out across the floor.

42.  Proud graduate of Vanderbilt University and a lifelong Vanderbilt sports fan (which can be difficult in the Southeastern Conference).

Graduation from Vanderbilt - 1949

Proud Vanderbilt graduate

43.  Has donated blood all his life…and has the t-shirts to prove it. (And by the way, he irons those t-shirts.  Who does that?!)

44.  While we were growing up, Daddy could play two songs on the piano:  Body and Soul and the St. Louis Blues.  To this day, those are two of my top ten favorite songs.

45.  Has long been a nuanced thinker about political and social questions, and loves engaging in civil conversations around those questions.

46.  Loves all his grandchildren for the people they are…and they are very different!

Christmas Eve 09 at the Ghattases Daddy with Grandchildren jpg

Tom Brown and a group of his grandchildren on Christmas Eve 2009

47.  Slept in small, wet tents on the hard ground just so he could be out with his sons as assistant scout master of Troop 416.

48.  Has a very high respect for women and always treats them as equals.  One of the things of which Daddy was most proud was the fact that Mom was the first female deacon in the history of First Baptist Church.

49.  For years he cooked a breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast five days a week for the entire family, before heading out to work.  To this day, when I think of breakfast, that’s the meal that comes to my mind, and I always picture it being made by a man.

50.  Hiked muddy, wet, and hot trails at Shiloh and Franklin battlefields during the Civil War centennial of the 1960s because he knew of my love of history.

51.  Spent many a Christmas Eve (and spilling over into Christmas morning) putting together bicycles and other gifts for his children.  I never understood what love this was…until I was up late on Christmas Eve putting together toys for Andrew and Claire.

DJB on Christmas morning 1964

Christmas morning 1964

52.  Hates University of Alabama football because they beat Vanderbilt by a score of 71-0 in 1945. (The year before, Alabama filled out its team with 17-year olds and young men who were too injured to serve, but not – presumably – to play football.  By the time 1945 rolled around they had a year’s experience on everyone and went 10-0.)

53.  Is a good man.

54.  Always has a positive outlook on life.

55.  Has a spreadsheet to remind him to take his pills that only an engineer could construct.

56.  Drove to Franklin each week in the summer so he could visit with his mother while I mowed her yard.  I think Joe took over as I got older.  All in all it was a win-win-win.

Bearden-Brown House

Bearden-Brown House in Franklin, where my father grew up and where I mowed the yard during the summers.

57.  Likes being out with people. These days that is usually at church gatherings, but years ago he liked to go to the theatre, concerts, and similar places. He is just plain sociable.

58.  Is friends with his children.  At some point in life, he stopped “being the father” and was very comfortable treating his children as adults who had interesting lives.

59.  Enjoyed playing games with his family.

Tom Badminton

Getting ready for a game of badminton, circa 1950

60.  Gail Collins and Molly Ivins are two of his favorite political commentators. Just reading that, you know he likes a little fun – or perhaps devilment – with his op-ed pages.  I can’t imagine him reading a stick-in-the-mud such as George Will.

61.  Comfortable in his own skin.

62.  When he laughs, he has a cackle that leaves the Wicked Witch of the West in the dust.

63.  Went out in terrible storms in the middle of the night to ensure that homes in our community had power.  Whenever I hear people complain about the local power company not getting their lights on immediately, I think back to my father’s work ethic and sacrifice, and have a great deal of sympathy for those men in the crew.

Tom Brown at Sewanee

Tom Brown at the power station at Sewanee, TN

64.  Even when he has something negative to say, he does so in a way that doesn’t condemn others.  Sometimes he’ll just say, “Consider the source.”

65.  Has made wonderful choices for the “next third” of his life, so that he has lived an active, intellectually curious three decades since retirement.

66.  Has email correspondents all over the world, and sends out notes to connect with them all on a regular basis.

67.  Taught driver safety at the local retirement community…when he was more than 70 years old!

68.  Opens up his house to a group of teenage boys from church each week so they can have a place away from their homes to have pizza and talk as a group.  Of course, the teenage boys think it is pretty neat that they can go to the home of someone who is almost 90 years old and find a warm welcome.  They probably also appreciate the fact that he can’t hear a word they say!

69.  Knows his family tree as well as anyone, and still makes all the family reunions.

Bearden Family Reunion

1966 Bearden Family Reunion

70.  Made the decision on his 70th birthday that he was going to get in shape and stay in shape…and he has stuck to that decision now for 20 years.  (Do you see a pattern of making decisions on major birthdays?)

71.  Has a wealth of great sayings, such as when you call and ask if he’s doing anything, he’ll reply, “No, just the usual sixes and sevens.”

72.  Has been known to drive the 30 miles to Franklin on his wedding anniversary, visit the church where he and my Mom were married, and sit and reflect on their life together.

Franklin, TN

Franklin, TN, my father’s hometown

73.  Has a great memory, but says that his “Central Processing Unit (CPU) runs slowly.”

74.  Did you know he paid more for his last car than he did for his first home?  (Just one of many stories and sayings I’ve heard all my life.)

75.  Likes to make “remarks” at family gatherings.  He’ll usually type out what he wants to say and will read it aloud when the entire group is gathered.  These are among the ways he gives blessings to his family.

76.  Co-signed the bank note so I could buy my Gibson mandolin when I was in college.  Has always loved hearing his children and grandchildren play music together.

Playing music with the Browns

Playing music with my brother Joe (left) and my nephews

77.  As an early riser myself, I often walked in on my father reading his Bible and praying in the morning before he would wake up the family and cook breakfast for us…and still make it to work by 7 a.m.  It was how he remained centered through the day.

78.  Because he went to work so early, he was always home by about 3:30 in the afternoon.  That meant he was available for baseball games, school plays, dinner…you name it. He was a very active father.

79.  Never differentiated between a “man’s work” and “women’s work” around the house (or outside the house, for that matter).  He was our chief cook growing up. He would wash and iron clothes regularly. Especially when my mom began to work outside the home, he did more than his share of the housework.

80.  Moved his family to a bigger house (on East Main Street) and brought his mother in to live with us in the rear apartment.  He explained why she had to come and live with us, but I suspect he knew that we would all be blessed to have our very wise Grandmother living in the same house. Looking back, that was a wonderful time in my personal growth.

81.  Always had a “home improvement project” underway on the East Main Street house.  It was a big old house that was lived in, but also well-loved.  As they got older, my brothers Steve and Joe made major contributions to these projects.

Main Street

407 East Main Street, Murfreesboro – The Old Home Place

82.  Is a very good patient.  Whatever the doctor tells him to do, he does.  He is on his second generation Primary Care Physician in Murfreesboro, as he now sees the daughter of his long-time physician.

83.  Doesn’t think of himself as old.  But he does say that “Growing old is not for wimps.”

84.  The Brown and Bearden families had “good names” in Franklin, where he grew up, but he never “got above his raising.”

85.  Must have at least 150 pictures of family – present and past – hanging in his house.  I always loved this one of Pappy Bearden – my father’s grandfather.

Pappy Bearden

Thomas Bruce Bearden – Our Andrew’s middle name is Bearden, which was my Grandmother’s family name

86.  Gives freely of his time, money, and possessions.  Things do not mean much to him, but relationships are everything.

87.  Gives love freely.

88.  Lives with a wonderful understanding of grace.  He told us at one point that his mother’s favorite Bible verse was “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that is not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”  Ephesians. 2:8-9.  In the note to our family, he said that his mother often quoted it to him, and it had the most impact on his life.

89.  Is a holy man.

Tom Brown at the Franklin Theatre

Tom Brown – Thank you for your wonderful life

90.  Writes thank you notes for every gift he receives.  He’s done it for years. This is our thank you note back for 90 wonderful years of life – 60 of which I’ve been privileged to share with him, 33 for Candice, and 22 each for Andrew and Claire. We can’t imagine a more wonderful father, father-in-law, and grandfather.  Happy 90th Birthday, Tom Brown!  Love, David, Candice, Andrew, and Claire.

More to come…

DJB

17 Responses

  1. Love the list, David. It certainly describes Tom to a “T”. Once, your family moved to Murfreesboro, he was always willing to help my parents in any way. My Mom thought of him more as a brother than a first cousin.

  2. Lou, We so loved your parents. It always felt great having cousins in Murfreesboro. See you soon. DJB

  3. Awesome man. When he speaks up at church I always listen. It is like the old EF Hutton commercials. He is a treasure!

  4. Wow, David! What a wonderful tribute. As I sat here and read all the 90 comments I was filled with such emotion having known Tom and Helen and the family for over fifty years. Your mom was my wife, Margaret’s GA leader at FBC in Cookeville before I even knew my wife. Tom Brown has been one of my spiritual mentors since we moved to Murfreesboro in 1973 from Cookeville. What a blessing your post has been to me and I know to Tom. Blessings to you and your family, and Happy Birthday to Mr. Tom.

  5. Being acquainted with Tom as a member of First Baptist Mboro since 2006, I recognize many of the traits in your list. How fortunate he is to have such a thoughtful son. May Tom have many more good years!

  6. I hope he has many more good years and sounds like a caring father.

  7. A wonderful tribute a wonderful Christian man!!

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