Living at the Intersection of Past, Present, and Future

James K. Huhta

James K. Huhta

(Note:  I made the following remarks at the funeral of Dr. James K. Huhta on Monday, May 8, 2017, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Jim was the founder of the Historic Preservation Program at Middle Tennessee State University, an early mentor in the field, and—along with his wife Mary who died 11 months earlier—a dear friend.)

I thought I would start my remarks with a history joke…but they’re all too old.

Feel free to groan, because I will keep on with the bad puns and jokes if you don’t.  Just as Jim would have done.

In recent days, I have talked with people who knew Jim from all walks of life. We all acknowledge the deep pain of the past year to the family, friends, and this community. But like these friends and colleagues, I want to reflect today on his many accomplishments and his impact on others, before the inexplicable challenges of recent years became too much for him to bear.

Several people recounted how Jim’s optimism for the future set them on a path which they only now recognize as life-changing. His leadership positions in the preservation field were mentioned time and again. Some had personal stories of Jim, Mary, Becky and Suzanne.

But every single person I spoke with mentioned the puns.

It was the articulate humor “with which he approached all of life’s challenges,” as his Advisory Council colleague Tom King phrased it, that was the endearing feature that touched all.

Longtime U.S. Congressman Bart Gordon, who worked closely with Jim on what is now this city’s nationally regarded greenway system, told me that Jim’s most lasting accomplishment was “Holding the world’s record for most puns made as chairman of the Greenway Commission.”

I think Bart was only partially kidding.

Peabody award winning journalist Krista Tippett has written about the link between a sense of humor and wisdom in her book Becoming Wise.  She says,

“I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself….There is a science helping us to see a sense of humor in the brain as an expression of creativity, making unlikely connections, and leaning into them with joy.”

The Jim Huhta I want to remember today had a wise sense of humor and a wisdom that made unlikely connections, which he leaned into with joy. His professional accomplishments were numerous.  He was one of the pioneers of preservation education, a visionary working in a multi-disciplinary history program at a time when many of the other schools in this field were focused solely on preservation through an architecture and architectural history lens.  Jim once told a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean that “historic preservation is history outside (the) classroom, and it seeks to use our cultural heritage in a variety of ways…for future generations.”

As a pioneer in the field, Jim was sought out for leadership positions here in Murfreesboro, in Tennessee, and across the nation.  Locally, he chaired projects to restore the Rutherford County Courthouse as well as open the Stones River and the Lytle Creek Greenways.  Jim and former Mayor Westbrooks were the driving forces behind the bicentennial project at Cannonsburgh.

At the state level, Jim authored the plan for a National Heritage Area on the Civil War in Tennessee. When opportunities arose at the national level, Jim was there as well.  He was a founder and early chair of the National Council on Preservation Education, served as an Advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation and on the board of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and was appointed by President Bill Clinton to two terms on the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

Jim’s record of accomplishments runs to five single-spaced pages and is a testament to his vision, his indefatigable energy, his love of people, his sense of public service—and his wisdom.

But I want to focus on the intersections of Jim’s life.  Just as thriving Main Streets or exemplary historic sites are dynamic places where past, present, and future meet in a variety of ways, Jim Huhta lived those intersections of past, present, and future in a very personal way.

Jim had a family heritage that he loved to showcase.  It didn’t take long to figure out that Jim was the son of first-generation Finnish immigrants.  Usually that information would come out after he told you not to fly on a Finnish airline, because he heard that they sometimes disappeared in Finnair.

I know of students who took pilgrimages to Ashtabula, Ohio, simply because they heard him talk incessantly about his hometown.

But Jim knew that not everyone had a way to connect to their personal past, so he worked hard to get people to look—and treasure—what was around them.  In that same Tennessean interview from 1980, he noted that “Most of us have very little feeling for family, community, and local history. But if we would look at the history closest to us, we would have more pride in our communities.”

Jim wanted to know about your past, but more importantly, he wanted you to know about your past.

Understanding the past is important, but only if it connects and is relevant to the present and the future. How one lives right now in community was central to Jim’s understanding of preservation and public service.  One colleague who worked with Jim spoke to the “broadmindedness and focus on community” that he brought to historic preservation.

I saw this personally, as Jim pushed this young undergraduate to tackle challenges out in the real world. While students who came into his classroom were often scared by the large pile of books and multi-page syllabus he displayed on day one, once he weeded out those who didn’t want to work, Jim quickly led those who were left out of the classroom and into the community.  He had a very robust sense of public service, and Jim worked to instill that same value in those he taught.

But the past and present are still missing a key component if we do not see their connections to the future. I have been working with colleagues across the country on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act to prepare a vision for preservation’s future.  In reviewing this work, I’m pleased—but not surprised—to see how much of this vision comes from what I learned 40 years ago from Jim Huhta.

A preservation movement that puts people first is right in line with Jim’s insights that places from our past, reused today, have positive impact on our spiritual, social, and economic well-being in the future. Jim also believed—and lived it in his life and work—that a people-centered preservation movement hears, understands, and honors the full diversity of the American story.

As he talked about Becky and Suzanne, and later his granddaughters Olivia and Catherine, Jim made it clear that he was working at the intersection of the past and present for future generations – future generations where he had a strong and loving personal investment.

People were central to Jim’s life and work, as those of us who made frequent visits to see Jim and Mary at the yellow house can attest.  He had a familiarity with people from the past—including those who had often been under-represented—that has resonance today.

As the writer Rebecca Solnit has suggested in writing about indigenous communities, “The people consigned to the past have emerged as our best hope for the future.”  With his work to ensure that the lives and stories of those associated with places such as the segregation-era Bradley Academy were not lost, Jim clearly grasped and shared this concept.

My recollections of Jim always include the people he loved the most—Mary, Becky, and Suzanne—and a wide, generous view of family. Like many students after me, I spent hours talking not just with Jim, but with the family. Jim hired me to help with the landscaping at the yellow house while I was in school, and since he knew that my parents were Baptist teetotalers, he always offered up a beer after the job was finished.  When I moved away from Murfreesboro, my mother—who worked at Linebaugh Library where Jim and Mary were among her most faithful clients—would all but encourage me to make a run over to the yellow house when I returned for a visit, so I could enjoy an adult beverage and get caught up on what Jim and Mary were doing. In later years, I would hear of how the Huhtas stopped by to chat politics with my father at his regular table at the City Café. For me and many others, Jim would write exemplary letters of recommendation that would make you blush, but after he sent them off he would bring it back down to earth by telling a bad joke or three.  In his own way, Jim let you know that he understood you as a person with a past, present, and future that he embraced and celebrated.

This is a family to which I am clearly indebted, and to which I hold close as they struggle to make sense of that which cannot be understood on this side of life. I can only say that Jim’s life included a large measure of work to hold both people and place dear.

To paraphrase the writer Madeleine L’Engle, these are places filled with people living over centuries of time.  Places where a richness of experience permeates the rooms and life is lived to the utmost. Where we experience birth and death. Joy and grief. Laughter and tears. And bad puns.

Jim’s life was meaningful, consequential, and full of wisdom for a better future. And now, the fullness of that life will be in this place and in all of us.  May both Jim and Mary rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

Top Posts of 2016 (Family and Friends Edition)

Family in Philadelphia

With Candice, Andrew, and Claire (clockwise from bottom left), June 2016 in Philadelphia

I’m lucky to have patient readers of More to Come… as the blog (like my mind) is often all over the place. In looking back over posts from the past year, I decided to highlight the top ten (in terms of views) in a “family and friends” edition, to be followed tomorrow by a “whatever else tickles my fancy” edition, where I’ll catch the posts that don’t directly relate to family members.

Unfortunately, many of the top family posts this year related to death and loss. There were so many losses this year (both family and others who felt like family) that I added a Rest In Peace category to the blog. I’m grateful for the notes and comments these musings brought, but like so many readers I still miss the people who are no longer with us.

I’ll highlight the top ten family and friends posts in the order in which they showed up on More to Come…

Andrew was asked to join Lady Gaga and 50 other survivors of sexual assault on the stage of the Academy Awards as she sang her Oscar-nominated song ‘Til it Happens to YouWe Believe You – my March 2nd post – flowed from that experience.

Andrew and Lady Gaga

Andrew with Lady Gaga at the Oscars

Three of the posts revolved around my father’s death in May of 2016, just shy of his 91st birthday.  The first post came the day I learned Daddy had died – May 14th – and was titled R.I.P. Daddy, Tom, Granddaddy.  After the funeral, I posted My Favorite Tom Brown Stories, which captured all the things people had to say about Daddy in the days we gathered to celebrate a life well lived.  A few days later, A Blessing For Our Children, taken from notes in my father’s Bible, spoke to the blessing of unconditional love.

With the children spread from coast to coast, we celebrate the few times we get to have all four of us together.  A Philly Family Weekend was built around the marriage of our dear friend Julia Pentz to Barry Katz.

Claire and Andrew ready for the wedding

Claire and Andrew ready for the wedding

In early August, we lost a dear friend in Staunton, Virginia, Ted Jordan, who died after an accident on a construction site.  And When From Death I’m Free, I’ll Sing On was my remembrance of Ted’s many gifts and the music we made together for over a decade.

Adventures in Moving was a late August post that captured a three-day road trip with Andrew, as we traveled to Tennessee to gather furniture from my father’s house and bring it back to our home in Maryland.  Andrew even got to stand in Tennessee and Virginia at the same time.

Andrew in Bristol

Andrew (and his Beyonce shirt) have a foot in Tennessee and a foot in Virginia on Bristol’s famous State Street

I began writing a short Monday morning email to my staff at the National Trust this year, and I captured these on this blog under the category of “Monday Musings.” One of my posts from my new category made it to the top ten list this year in the family and friends category.  In September, I wrote a blog entitled Hope is Grounded in Memory, which references my Grandmother’s clock as a way of choosing hope in life.

Grandmother's clock

A small symbol of hope

In November, our parish held its Commemoration of All Faithful Departed service, which led to the post Going Out in a Blaze of GloryMy father was a big fan of Mel Brooks and the movie Blazing Saddles.  If you missed this post the first time, you’ll have to read it now to see how the two fit together.

Each Thanksgiving, I post a special blog of photographs from the year.  It is usually a favorite (perhaps because I link to it in our Thanksgiving letter to friends and family).  Our Year in Photos – 2016 was no different, and this year it included a picture of the visit Claire and I made to see the LA Angels (and check another major league baseball park off my bucket list).

With Claire at the Big A

With Claire at the Big A

So there are the top ten “family and friends” posts from 2016.  Thanks, as always, for reading.  And as you know, in 2017 there will be…

More to come…

DJB

Going Out in a Blaze of Glory

All Souls

St. Albans in Washington, ready for the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed

Last evening’s Commemoration of All Faithful Departed service at our church was beautiful and personally meaningful.  I had it marked on my calendar for some time, as I wanted to attend to remember my father, who passed away earlier this year.

The choir’s music was beautiful, with Mozart’s Requiem interspersed between the readings.  The first of those readings is from the Book of Wisdom and begins, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment shall ever touch them.”

We put the names of loved ones departed into a basket, and during the prayers of the people each name was read while members of the congregation could come forward and light a candle. (As an aside, I loved hearing baseball legend Monte Irvin remembered among the departed.)

Lovely. Thoughtful. Deeply moving.

And when I saw that The Rev. Emily Griffin was the evening’s preacher, I knew all three of those feelings would continue.  We have three very insightful and thoughtful priests who enlighten us each in their own way with powerful words.

Emily began her sermon by saying, “There are other ways we could be doing this,” and continued by recounting various ways we remember our loved ones.  That’s when my mind took off.

For earlier on Saturday, Andrew and I had our own special “Commemoration of All Faithful Departed” for Daddy/Granddaddy.

When we brought furniture home from his house in August, I threw in his DVD player, knowing ours was on the fritz.  It took me until yesterday to check it out and plug it in.  Andrew was helping me, and after we had it connected, I said, “Let’s see if this thing works.”  We turned it on and out popped a disk. Andrew picked it up and started laughing.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“Guess what movie Granddaddy watched last?”

Blazing Saddles.

My father loved the broad humor of Mel Brooks, and we both immediately doubled over in laughter at the thought of my 90-year-old father laughing at such lines as:

Mongo only pawn in game of life.

Hello handsome, is that a ten gallon hat or are you just enjoying the show.

[Jim the Waco Kid to Bart, the African-American sheriff, after the old woman insults him] What did you expect? “Welcome, sonny?” “Make yourself at home?” “Marry my daughter?” You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the New West. You know…morons.

So what was our commemoration?  Why we sat down and watched the entire movie, and Candice said the laughter could be heard throughout the house.  Andrew texted his sister and some of the cousins with the news of our find and Claire wrote back, “I wouldn’t have expected anything less of Granddaddy.”

It was a glorious celebration.

So thanks to St. Alban’s Church for the lovely and meaningful service.  And thanks to you, Daddy, for having such a wonderful (and wise) sense of humor.

Chiggers

Chiggers (photo by Don Williams)

R.I.P.

More to come…

DJB

And When From Death I’m Free, I’ll Sing On…

A dear friend from our days in Staunton passed away yesterday.  Ted Jordan was much too young and vibrant, but an accident claimed his life and devastated both family and friends. A scholar, gifted writer, carpenter and general contractor, Ted would do anything for anyone.  The 17 trips he took to Honduras to build schools and churches are but one example of the person he was. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Dana and his boys – Ben, Grayson, and Tim – and their families.

I was fortunate to see and talk with Ted for a good while when I was in the Shenandoah Valley last month for the Red Wing Roots Music Festival.  He was at the festival with his granddaughter, Violet and his son, Ben.  I told Candice that evening that it was such a treat to see how much joy Ted’s family brought him at this new stage in life.

There was a time where Ted and I played music together at least once a week for a decade or more.  One of our favorite tunes was the old Shaker hymn Simple Gifts, which we played as an instrumental.  I would finger-pick the melody and Ted flat-picked a lovely harmony line.  To this day, when I play that tune I hear Ted’s guitar doing its thing.

Another of our favorite tunes was Wondrous Love, where Ted played guitar along with my mandolin.  When we got to the final verse, we would sing it a capella.  Ted commented on more than one occasion that I would close my eyes for that verse and let the sound wash over me.  He was right.  There was something about singing on after being freed from death that spoke to both of us at a very deep level.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on,

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing on.

And when from death I’m free, I’ll sing and joyful be,

And through eternity, I’ll sing on.

Sing on dear friend.  Rest in peace.

More to come…

DJB

A Blessing for our Children

Thanksgiving 1982

Our first Thanksgiving together, at my parents’ home in 1982

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1982. Candice and I were spending our first married Thanksgiving with my parents. After the meal, Dad gathered us all together and gave the following blessing to his children, daughters-in-law and son-in-law.  (He later expanded it to include his grandchildren.) The blessing was read at his funeral last Wednesday, and it was hand-written in my father’s Bible that we brought home with us. It says all you need to know about how my parents thought about their responsibility in raising children and their release of us as adults to find our own path to grow into the people we are.

Blessing for our Children

Your mother and I give you:

Unconditional love, and to each one of you we give all our love.  Love expands to meet the need.

Unconditional acceptance based on who you are – our sons and our daughters – our sons-in-law and our daughters-in-law and our grandchildren. Not on what you do or don’t do.

Release to be the person God intends for you to be.  Release to do what you think God would have you do – to try and to do and to be free to fail and try again.

We give you our affirmation and support as you work out your understanding of God’s purposes in your life.

We love each of you and thank God for you.

Dad took the emotional risk to express this blessing to our family.  However, my parents not only said this one time, they lived it everyday.

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

The knowledge that we were loved and accepted unconditionally certainly shaped the person I’ve become and – I hope – the way I approach my life with Claire and Andrew.  Of course I’ve fallen short, but I’ve had the freedom to fail and try again.

I can’t begin to express my thanks.

More to come…

DJB

My Favorite Tom Brown Stories

Tom Brown

Tom Brown

We celebrated my father over the past four days before his burial next to my mother in Evergreen Cemetery.  Tom Brown was well-loved, and over those days we heard many stories full  of love, support, and humor.

In the four-hour receiving line on Tuesday evening, the family was strategically stationed so that Joe and Carol – who live in Murfreesboro – could introduce people to my older brother Steve who lives in Sarasota.  Then Debbie and Mark, also from Murfreesboro, were at the end of the line so they could give Candice and me a heads up on who was on the way.  The grandkids (especially the older ones) then set up another receiving line near the casket.

Every person from First Baptist Church (it seems) came, along with a good number of people who worship at my brother Joe’s church and my sister Carol’s church.  (These are Baptist – they are never content with just one church!)  The entire Murfreesboro Water Department, where my sister Debbie has worked for decades, came (leading me to ask after a while, “Just who is watching the water supply in this town right now?”)  Librarians came by the score, as my mother was a long-time librarian at Linebaugh in Murfreesboro and the Smyrna Public Library, and my sister Carol has followed in Mom’s footsteps at Linebaugh.  Employees past and present from the Tennessee Valley Authority, where my father worked for 35 years, came to pay their respects. Former teachers (of me and my brothers and sisters, along with all our nieces and nephews) and current teachers (who work alongside our nieces Ashli and Rachel and teach their children and more) were there. People flew in from Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, and Florida, and drove in from throughout Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. So many people came from the YMCA, that I began asking, “Are you from the swimming group or the coffee and doughnuts group?” since my Dad did both every morning six days a week for about 29 years.  I received a call during the visitation from 91-year-old Paul Brown, Daddy’s first cousin and the last surviving Brown of that generation. It was a great recognition of life and family.

Nearly everyone who spoke to me during this time began with the line, “I just loved your Daddy (or Tom, or Uncle Tom by his nieces and nephews, or Mr. Tom. Never Mr. Brown.)  Many would add, “And your mother, she was such a saint.”  Then many would launch into a story or three.  I can’t recall them all, but here are a few of my favorites.

  • From his dentist – who happened to be my best friend growing up in Murfreesboro:  “Your daddy came in one day a few years ago and said, ‘I’ve learned a new exercise.’ I asked him what it was and he replied, ‘I just watch the ladies take Zumba class and that gets my heart rate up and I don’t have to do anything else!'”  We laughed and I told Ben, “I always knew when Daddy was feeling better after a hospital or rehab stay, because he started flirting with the twenty-something nurses.  He’d be discharged soon afterwards!”
  • So many people told me “I just had dinner at church last Wednesday with your Dad.  He sat at the same table he always does, and we were there with him.”  After about the 25th person told me that, I said to Debbie, “That must have been some table!”  She replied, “You know Daddy and how he shouted to compensate for his loss of hearing.  When Daddy was in the room, everyone knew it!”
  • When Debbie was going to pick up his mail at Adam’s Place, the retirement community where he had moved about six months ago, one of the residents came up and said, “I’m so sorry to hear about Mr. Tom’s death…because we lost another Democratic Party voter!”
City Cafe

Daddy at Murfreesboro’s City Cafe

  • Candice, Andrew, and I went down to City Cafe on Monday morning for breakfast.  My father ate there just about every day for the 18 years since my Mom died.  We told the waitress that my Dad had been a regular there, but that he passed away on Saturday morning and she cried out, “Oh, Mr. Tom!” (We hadn’t mentioned his name.) “We loved Mr. Tom.  When is his funeral?”  When we said it was 11 a.m. on Wednesday across the street at First Baptist Church, she said, “Good, I get off at 10 a.m., and although I’ll be in my work clothes I’ll be there.”
  • My father hosted a small group of teenage boys on Sunday evenings at his house for Bible study and pizza for several years.  One of them identified himself to me in the receiving line.  I said, “I bet you guys loved it.  You had a house that wasn’t your parents, where you could eat pizza and talk, and he couldn’t hear a word you said!”  He laughed and said that was true.  But later someone came through from the YMCA and she told the story of how a group of people were gossiping about someone and thought Daddy couldn’t hear them, because of his loss of hearing.  After they left, Daddy turned to the receptionist at the Y and said, “Those folks were talking about so-and-so, and yet they are the ones who are crazy.”  She continued, “I never said anything again around Mr. Tom that I didn’t want him to hear.  I think his being hard-of-hearing was very selective!”
  • Many years after Mom’s death, Daddy had a lady friend who would go to the theatre or to dinner with him when he was more active.  She continued to take him out to eat and run errands when he moved to Adam’s Place.  She told me that Daddy told her, “We’re both known all over this town, so I think we can just go out and do what we please.”
  • Steve reminded me that Daddy always said, “There won’t be any inheritance.  I want my last check to bounce!” Well, he almost got his wish.  Daddy didn’t keep a lot of money in his checking account, so when my sister went to pay the cemetery and the funeral home, she found she had to cash out a few stocks to get enough money in the account to pay off those bills.  We all laughed.  But true to his engineering ways, Daddy had actually arranged things incredibly well for those of us who had to take care of his affairs.  Debbie and I were originally the co-executors (which I relinquished to her about a year ago so that she wouldn’t have to hunt me down to get signatures on time.)  Daddy had all his computer passwords and links written down.  He long ago had put everything he had in a trust, so we wouldn’t have to deal with probate.  And his house sale closes on Friday – which was the last big item in his estate.  When I hear about friends with difficult estate issues with their parents, I am thankful for Daddy’s incredible foresight.
Pocket Protector

Daddy, the TVA engineer, at a substation with both his head and pocket protected

  • Daddy’s suspenders and pocket protectors were often a topic of conversation.  He was so comfortable in his skin that he’d wear suspenders with outrageous colors or designs.  A favorite for everyone were the pair that looked like measuring rulers, which Andrew and Claire gave him many years ago.  And the pocket protectors were legendary – always full of pens and pencils.  (He was an engineer in the pre-CAD days).  My sister Carol reminded me that when we cleaned out his house, we found five brand new pocket protectors, still in their wrapping.  I think they were becoming harder to find in stores and he began hoarding them.
  • Daddy was a member of the Circle of Friends Sunday School class.  Several of its members told me that on Sunday, they decided to ditch their regular lesson.  They put his coffee cup on his chair and spent the hour telling Tom Brown stories.
  • My father was a terrible – but enthusiastic – singer of hymns in church.  If you had any musical sense at all you did not want to sit next to him.  It only got worse when he got his hearing aid.  Daddy also sat in the second pew, right in front of the pulpit.  Several people told the story of how Daddy would sing about half a line behind the congregation, because his hearing aid was off and he couldn’t hear anything.  Debbie said that once he got a new hearing aid and began singing on the beat (if not on key) and she turned and stared at him.  But that soon went by the wayside and he went back to his own personal version of singing in rounds.
  • I was telling another long-time friend who lived across the street from Mom and Dad on Main Street and was active in Democratic politics about the 20 or so magazines I spent Monday morning cancelling on-line.  What was my Dad reading as he entered his 10th decade of life?  Oh, just Mother JonesThe Intelligence Report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.  Sojourners and The Christian CenturyThe Hightower LowdownThe Washington SpectatorThe Nation.  The New York Times and The Washington Post (the latter, I suppose, was to get his dose of conservative commentary). Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek. I mentioned to these friends that I had called Daddy after Tennessee was considering naming The Bible as the State book, and telling him his work on earth was not done, as he needed to write a letter to the editor.  The friend’s wife said, “Oh, he did write, and it was a good one.  Your father was always trying to set people straight in Tennessee about the importance of the separation of church and state!”  Some people do like lost causes.
  • A friend who recently lost his own father mentioned that five different men who had been real mentors for him – including my Dad – had passed away in the past year.  He noted that it was a bit scary to know that we were now that generation that others looked up to, and he said, “You know, David, they didn’t cut us a lot of slack.  They just said, ‘Get out there and do it’ and they would add a kick in the pants or a pat on the back, whatever you needed.”
  • Finally, a cousin who had gone through a difficult first marriage, told us the story that, “Uncle Tom and Aunt Helen always seemed to know when I was down and needed a visit.  Uncle Tom would call and ask if they could come by, and they would stop in to talk, bring food, and always a book.”  She said they helped her get through many a rough patch.  Once she showed Daddy a book she was reading and he said, “Oh, that’s okay, but I’ll send you a better one!”  Sure enough, about five days later a different – and better book on the subject – showed up in her mailbox.  Giving…it was what Mom and Dad were all about.
Celebrating Tom's 90th

Claire, Candice, Tom, DJB, and Andrew celebrating Tom’s 90th birthday

When people told me that were sorry for my loss, I would thank them and then deliver this standard line – which has the added advantage of being true.  Daddy lived a long and full life, he gave love and was surrounded by a circle of family and friends from around the world who loved him back, he had his mental capabilities until the end, and he died the way he wanted.  You can’t ask for much more from life, I suppose.

Daddy, thanks for all the love.

More to come…

DJB

R.I.P. Daddy, Tom, Granddaddy

Tom Brown at the Franklin Theatre

Tom Brown

Thomas Bearden Brown, after 90-plus years of a life exceptionally well lived, passed away earlier this morning. We will miss the laughter, wisdom, care and love of our father, father-in-law, and granddaddy more than can be expressed.

Daddy learned from the best.  His father was a gregarious, loving man who never met a stranger.  His mother was gracious, thoughtful, hard-working, and fair.  Daddy had the best of those traits and if I don’t always exhibit them, it wasn’t for his lack of service as an example.

Daddy believed in serving his country, and as a World War II veteran he’ll have a flag draped across his coffin next week.  A life-long New Deal Democrat, he believed in treating everyone fairly – whether they looked like you, thought like you, or held the same values as you.  He never de-humanized anyone, and when I last spoke with him less than two short weeks ago, he was lamenting the level of our political discourse.  Daddy could disagree with you, but he never disparaged you.  (Well, maybe he did disparage Donald Trump a bit, but that could be forgiven.)

I think that’s what I’ll remember about Daddy the most. He tried his best to teach each one of us that everyone was human and deserved respect.  Daddy and Mom expected us to use Mr. and Mrs. when speaking with African-American men and women in the 1960s, even though most of our friends used first names, if that. He loved history, but he understood that heritage is just history without the difficult parts, and he knew the difficult parts were real.  Daddy and Mom took in Asian immigrants who came to Murfreesboro and treated them as family. I remember him giving food and money to street people, just as his mother had done years earlier at her boarding house, to help them get back on their feet.  He believed in paying his fair share of taxes because we lived in community, and not everyone had the same benefits that we did growing up white, middle class, and privileged in ways we could not even understand.  And when our gay son and transgendered nephew told their grandfather – in his late 80s at the time – of their life journeys, he may not have always understood, but he always told them that he loved them as much as he did any of his other grandchildren.

I’ve already said much about my father that I wanted to say when I posted 90 things about the wonderful life of Tom Brown to honor his 90th birthday last July.  Here are just a few that describe my father to the core:

TB and his children

Tom Brown with his children (clockwise from upper left) Joe, Steve, Debbie, David, and Carol on July 5, 2015 – his 90th birthday

  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • 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.
  • 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.

My father always loved gospel music – and especially black gospel music.  In his 80s he took a two-year sabbatical from his life-long Southern Baptist Church to attend the local black Baptist Church because it had a little spirit!  And he would love Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin’s take on Oh Happy Day, because he believed – in the depths of his soul – that Jesus “Taught me how to watch, fight and pray.”  He did each of those through 90 wonderful years.

Rest in peace and love, Daddy. Tom. Granddaddy.

More to come…

DJB