When meeting Robert Brown for the first time, you were immediately taken aback. His deep, raspy voice was unique; his smile genuine. But it was his words that kept you rapt. As he spoke, the depth of his life was revealed in all of its wonder. After a few minutes, you knew that Brown was unlike anyone you had ever met.
Robert Vincent Neruda Brown died Sunday afternoon at Duke Hospice at the Meadowlands in Hillsborough. He was 72 and leaves behind his wife and co-conspirator, Margaret Brown, and scores of friends and admirers. The Triangle’s political landscape will never be the same.
A longtime journalist, Brown, along with writer Leon Rooke, founded The North Carolina Anvil, a cutting-edge alternative newspaper that was published weekly and then twice weekly from 1966 to 1983. The Anvil was a training ground for many young writers, graphic artists and photographers, says Catherine Smith, a family friend who spent time interviewing Brown in the weeks leading up to his death.
Writer/politician Barry Jacobs, who served on the Orange County Board of Commissioners with Margaret Brown, got his start in journalism as a reporter for The Anvil, making as little as $5 a story in the mid-1970s. Brown was Jacobs’ first professional editor.
“He was a tough, no nonsense, but supportive taskmaster in the grand tradition of the editors you see in black and white movies,” Jacobs says. “He taught me a lot of things about how to be a reporter. … As we all get older, the different lights go out in the sky, and some are brighter than others, and Bob was one of the bright lights who shone for a long time.”
Jacobs says the modus operandi at The Anvil was simple: “Whatever injustices we saw, we tried to go after them. The Anvil was combative to the point that it was difficult to survive financially.”
Jacobs likened Brown’s voice to a growl.
“When I worked for him he was a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, suspender-wearing, swaggering, shouting, growling, likable guy,” Jacobs says. “He commanded respect. Until you got used to him, he was a little fearsome.”
Writer and former war correspondent Perry Deane Young met Brown in the early 1960s.
“He offended no one,” Young says. “Isn’t that extraordinary? People loved him. He was just an extraordinary guy, a guy of ferocious integrity, and a community needs people like that.
“The main thing is he was a happy guy. There aren’t a hell of a lot of happy people around. He was a very positive guy in a weird way. He was a hater, too, but mostly he just loved people.”
Steve Bynum, a handyman from Hillsborough, spent many hours repairing toilets and sinks and driving nails alongside Brown working on some mobile homes that Brown owned and rented out, mostly to low-income people for a fair price.
“We talked about a little bit of everything,” Bynum says. “When my mother passed, he was there for me. He was just a good friend. He had a good spirit. He was decent. He was fair. He cared about people. He’s going to be missed a lot.”
Smith had a long talk with Brown on Jan. 29, just a week before he died. Brown recalled the day in 1958 when he first drove up the hill on Franklin Street, “entering Chapel Hill at about 5:30 one spring morning.” A boy from New York with a history degree from Columbia, Brown was enrolling in a UNC graduate program in Southern history.
Smith says Brown “absolutely lived politics based in liberal values. Nothing disappointed him as much as when the political left didn’t come through, when it failed, when it faltered. He was just passionate about politics and about events; everything mattered to him. He never had the sort of numbing or indifference or head-in-the-sand-waiting-until-things-get-better denial of how things are. He was always right there, irritated, annoyed and optimistic about the possibility of change.”
Brown was born June 10, 1933, in Belle Harbor, Long Island, to Alexander “Al” and Katherine Heinz “Tottie” Brown. Brown later added Neruda to his name in honor of the Chilean surrealist poet and political activist Pablo Neruda. Brown grew up in the Bronx. He followed a family tradition of military service and joined the Air Force in 1952. He flew 133 combat missions as a gunner in the Korean War and received multiple commendations for injuries and bravery in action. A war injury resulted in his walking with a limp.
Brown’s war experience and study of history led him to became an advocate for nonviolence and social justice, Smith says. In 1963, following the first Greensboro sit-ins, Brown and others initiated the Committee for Open Business to picket and conduct sit-ins at segregated Chapel Hill businesses.
In addition to The Anvil, Brown also published Chapel Hill Conscience, a mimeographed broadsheet, and Reflections from Chapel Hill, a highly regarded commentary on politics, arts and history. Brown’s local civil rights activism is described in John Ehle’s book The Free Men.
In 1964, Brown organized a write-in gubernatorial campaign for then-UNC President Frank Porter Graham. In the late ’60s, Brown rode a BMW motorcycle to Alaska, out west and to Mexico. In 1970, he met Margaret in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, Mexico.
After The Anvil, Brown “continued writing; published occasionally; overcame alcoholism; made gardens; raised and trained horses,” Smith wrote after interviewing Brown last week.
Jennifer Miller, who has known the Browns for more than 30 years, said Robert kept up a correspondence with his friends, often knocking out letters on a manual typewriter. She joined many gatherings at the Brown’s Smith Level Road home that Brown rebuilt after it was destroyed in a fire.
“He was never too busy,” Miller says. “You could walk in at any time, and whatever he was doing he would stop, get a cup of coffee and sit down with you and take as much time as you wanted.”
Brown “wasn’t afraid to challenge any assumptions,” Miller says. “If you said something he didn’t agree with, he would get into it with you and explore it with you.”
As he lay dying last weekend, Brown could look up and see his goddaughter, Carmen Hoyme, at his bedside until he took his last breath. Carmen, who grew up in Philadelphia, recalls spending summers in Chapel Hill with her godparents, where she would ride the family’s horses and stay out of trouble. Hoyme’s mother, Marjori Hoyme, was an activist alongside Brown in the 1960s.
Hoyme, 27, now a UNC law graduate, says Brown was “magnetic” to people of all generations. “There aren’t very many people 50 years older than me who I just can’t wait to introduce all of my friends to. He was just so delighted to meet young energetic people and was so inspirational to people who did meet him.
“I just always felt like I was giving a gift to my friends by bringing them over here and introducing them to Robert.”
Hoyme says Brown “enjoyed watching the ride of my being young and making these choices. Once I got into law school, he was just so knowledgeable that I would come over after class a lot and tell him what I learned about. He’d put it in some context for me because he knows so much. So I think he really shaped the way I think about the law, the fact that I am mostly interested in public service.”
Frank Blackford came to Chapel Hill as a UNC undergraduate and met Brown. Brown was influenced by his Catholic upbringing, Blackford says.
“He was such a living example of the life of the mind and the life of the heart as being the same thing,” Blackford says. “He was just passionately committed to doing the best he could on behalf of people; an intensely moral guy. He was the glue for a whole bunch of people who cared passionately about what they were doing, about racial equality, about social progress. He and Margaret have been the center of a whole network of people who are still very much in touch.”
Blackford says Brown “exemplified something that was healthy and good about a whole generation.” Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy, who met Brown about 10 years ago, says Brown was “a great source of inspiration and information and history” of what it was like to live in North Carolina during the Civil Rights era, “and what that meant for us now; why things are the way they are.”
With Brown, there “was no pretension,” Foy says. Brown was an idealist with “a real generous spirit.”
“Robert was so optimistic that everybody would be good,” he says. “Robert genuinely thought that everybody could be good. I don’t think he was naive. I don’t think he was deceived by human nature. That was what he always said to you as a parting shot: ‘Do good.’ Robert was such a source of energy. He surrounded himself with all of these extraordinary people. When you were at his house, it was just astonishing who you would run into, what they would say, and what they would know.
“Everything that you say about him sounds trite because you find yourself using words and phrases and images that don’t quite encompass him,” Foy says. “The overarching thing about him is that he was larger than life. Robert was really honestly larger than life, and the curious thing about it is that you would never know that until you had experienced it, until you had experienced him. … Nobody really knew all of Robert. Robert was too big to capture.”
Local journalist Joel Bulkley, who publishes Community Sports News, worked for years with Brown on The Anvil, a publication that “covered the whole spectrum of human activity.”
“Bob liked to talk, and he liked to listen and then he could argue with you,” Bulkley says. “There’s a whole lot less listening these days, a lot of people talking and not many people listening. Particularly in the liberal community, tolerance for other peoples’ views appears to me to be a whole lot less than it used to be.
“In order to argue his position, Bob had to understand what yours was in order to persuade you to why his might be better or why parts of yours might need to be modified or parts of his might,” Bulkley says.
Miller says she and others will try to keep Brown’s spirit alive in gatherings at the Brown homestead.
“At least half of what I always loved about being there is still there, and that’s Margaret,” Miller says. “I hope that we’ll all continue to gather there, and we’ll all continue to talk about Robert and remember and laugh and miss him. We’ll miss him, and we’ll miss him for a long time, because he was so important in so many ways.”
A memorial remembrance of Robert Brown is being planned for this spring. Tributes to Brown can be sent to email@example.com