Long live the king!
If writing has one rule, it is this: Show, don’t tell.
In other words, instead of simply describing things, ILLUSTRATE them.
It’s easy enough to say it, but it’s mighty difficult to DO. That’s why a piece of writing can be technically perfect — no mistakes in spelling, punctuation, grammar and the rest — and still be as appealing as a sinkful of day-old dishwater.
I let that rule guide me, but it’s a tough task, especially when my subject is of utmost importance, like this one. But as one of Arthur Miller’s characters said in “Death of a Salesman,” attention must be paid, so I will.
I’m writing about Bob Brown, who last week left this Vale of Sorrow.
Bob and I weren’t friends in any meaningful sense, but we were certainly on friendly terms and shot the breeze whenever we ran into each other. Then again, the same can be said for almost everyone else in town. Certainly I never heard anyone speak a bad word about him, and if I had, I’m sure I wouldn’t have liked them all that much.
One place our paths crossed was teaching — me at Paul Smith’s, him at North Country Community College. And over the 40-plus years we were both in the trenches of academe, I got to learn a lot about Bob as a teacher.
Brownie (as he was known to his students, fellow teachers and the rest of humankind) was beloved by all. He worked hard to deliver the goods, and he did it in his own serious-but-upbeat way.
Note: Excellent teachers go beyond merely imparting information. For example, they can see and cultivate a student’s potential (potential the student can’t see) and take them far beyond their self-imposed limitations. For example …
In one of Brownie’s anthropology classes in the late ’80s, he had just such a student. The kid liked anthropology well enough and was skilled at it, but Brownie saw the kid had The Gift. One day after class, Brownie told the kid he and his wife Pat were going to a Northeastern Anthropological Association meeting in Montreal and asked if he’d like to go with them. He did, and while there, Brownie “just happened” to run into some friends of his, anthropology teachers at SUNY Potsdam. Brownie then did the handoff, as it were. After the kid finished at NCCC, he went to Potsdam, where, to no one’s surprise, he majored in anthropology.
After he finished that degree, he earned a couple more and did fairly well for himself.
Oh yeah, that kid, by the way, is Joe Keegan — now NCCC’s president.
Brownie was a joiner, and two organizations I know he belonged to were the Masons and the Fish and Game Club. He was fully committed to both, went to all the meetings and activities, and I’ve no doubt he held every office and made every rank there was to be had. But he didn’t join just to update his resume — he was all in. He went to all the clubs’ activities, and if there was scut work to be done, he did it. With the Fish and Game Club, he went to the meetings, the picnics, the covered-dish suppers, the annual raffle … and he helped set them up before and clean them up afterward. And if there was a bake sale, he was sure to contribute some yummy or other to it.
And speaking of bake sales: Ken Youngblood, who was on the faculty with Brownie and stayed his dear friend in the years after Ken moved away, told me Brownie never missed ANY bake sale — but not for the reason you may think. He’d buy up a bunch of pies, maybe keeping one for himself, but freezing the others. That way, if later on someone he knew was going through hard times, he could give them a little something to lift their spirits.
But Brownie gave much more than things — he gave of himself. One of his brother Masons suffered from Alzheimer’s, eventually becoming bedridden, mute and apparently unaware of any of his surroundings. Luckily, his family kept him comfortably at home, where Brownie would regularly stop in and visit, chatting away as if it was Old Home Week, which, ultimately, it may have been. How’d I find this out? Not from Brownie, who never self-promoted, but from the family itself.
Now let’s talk about characters, shall we?
The thing about characters that many people fail to understand is there’s no artifice or affectation about them. They’re not trying to be characters, and probably don’t even think they are — even though everyone else does. Instead, they’re guided their own peculiar inner compass and dance to their very own raga.
Was Brownie a character? Well, sticking to my “show, don’t tell” rule, I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Joe Spadaro was a fellow faculty member of Brownie’s; plus they were hunting and fishing buddies. One late fall found them hunting ducks in a marsh somewhere near Massena. Or at least they were TRYING to hunt ducks. Apparently, the water was deeper and the mud was squishier than they’d expected. So what they were really doing was mucking about, literally.
After a while, gravity took hold, and Brownie sank enough to flood his waders and soak himself in icy water from stem to stern. So they did the only thing they could — they called it a day. Then they left and went to lunch at a fine-dining establishment worthy of their gourmet tastes — McDonald’s.
Joe got his food and sat down, while Brownie excused himself and went to the men’s room. Ten minutes passed … then 20 … then 30 … and still no sign of Brownie. At that point, Joe got worried, thinking maybe Brownie had had a heart attack. He got up and made his way to the men’s room, and before he reached it, a kid came out of it with a look on his face like he’d just stared down the throat of a cougar.
Joe passed the kid, tore open the door to the men’s room, and there was Brownie. He wasn’t having a heart attack; in fact, he was in the pink — literally. He was standing there, butt naked, his shirt tied around his waist as a barely successful breech cloth. And what had he been doing the whole time? Why, standing in front of the hand-dryer, merrily drying out his skivs, of course.
This last anecdote is my favorite, but only because I witnessed it.
In 1999 Brownie and his wife were voted Saranac Lake Winter Carnival king and queen. And given their contributions to the community, they fully deserved it. Brownie, the living embodiment of the phrase, “Half measures availeth nothing,” threw himself into his kingship in a way that would’ve made Admiral Farragut proud.
Carnival, which lasts 10 days and nights, is chock-full of all sorts of events, and traditionally the king and queen go to as many as they can. Brownie did that, of course, but when Carnival was finished, HE wasn’t: After Carnival was over, he went to all sorts of other local events representing Carnival, and as befit his status, he did it clad in his cloak and crown. And he continued to do it, right up until the Carnival 2000 Coronation.
After the coronation, I was leaving the town hall when an older gentleman fell in step next to me. I didn’t know him, but right after he spoke, I knew he knew Bob.
“Ya know,” he said, “when it came time for Brownie to hand over his crown, I thought they were gonna have to rassle it away from him.”
There was no insult meant and none taken, and we both shared a laugh.
Of course, when Brownie ended his reign, he did it in perfect fashion for a man who loved people, loved Winter Carnival and loved Saranac Lake.
That is, he did it with glee, gusto and with a great big grin plastered on his mug.