Emerson Brown looks back on 97 years

By Shanna Avery

Herald Review Staff Writer

REED CITY — Emerson Brown, who will turn 97 in March, has seen much of the world and witnessed significant events over the past century. But to him, his boyhood home of Reed City was worth coming back to after years of traveling the world on foreign assignments with the Civil Service Commission.

Early life

Brown was born into this world on a late afternoon, on March 30, 1920, by Dr.

, of Reed City.

"As my mother would recite on each birthday, Dr. Bray missed a Masonic funeral to attend my birth. He told my mother taking care of the living was more important than seeing to the dead," he said.

Early times of Reed City surfaced in Brown's memory, from his home on Slosson Street, where he still lives, to his experiences at school, to the family-run business, Brown's Store on East Upton Street where Yoplait now stands.

His words paint a picture of earlier days in Reed City.

"Reed City was a paradise for children when I was growing up," he said. "There were very few vehicles, and more horses and buggies. On Saturdays, farmers would come in with their horses and buggies or sleighs in the winter and set up market. Then they went to the movies.

"In those days people had their clothes made by local tailors. Each fall a seamstress would make my woolen knickers."

Being the grandson of Charles Randall, a Civil War veteran who was one of the first homesteaders in Pinora Township who moved to Reed City in later years, Brown said reminiscences of the Civil War were part of the community when he was growing up.

"When I was old enough to dry dishes, mother would tell us stories about the Civil War. Songs such as "Tenting Tonight," "Just Before the Battle, Mother," and "Marching Through Georgia," were still sung. Big Civil War reunions at places such as Gettysburg were also mentioned," he said.

Brown said his father, Milton W. Brown, owned Brown's Store on East Upton Street, which started out as a newspaper stand, and carried candy and stationary. Brown said every Sunday the store carried two papers from Grand Rapids, three Detroit papers and two Chicago papers. The store became popular as an ice cream shop until electrical refrigeration came into use in the late 1920s, and in later years, it was a popular teen hang-out and soda fountain.

Brown looked back on his education at Reed City with glowing memories. He entered kindergarten when he was only 4, which he said was partly because of a new baby in the family for his parents to look after.

"We never took textbooks home," he said. "We got everything done in class. My teachers were of really good caliber. The superintendent, Otto Olsen, taught geometry and geography, and I got A's in both classes."

Brown graduated Reed City High School three months past his 16th birthday. He stayed out of school for a year before attending Olivet College for four years.

"I remember having a teacher at Olivet who was a card-carrying communist. He was a terrific German teacher. Room, board and tuition at Olivet was only $624. That is incredible. My college experience was a paradise," he said.

Brown became proficient in German and French during his years at college, which helped shape his career on the foreign scene, by the time he graduated from Olivet in 1941. He also earned a provisional teacher's certificate.

"After I graduated I worked on a road job and then in the oil fields. I taught eighth grade at Ionia for one year," he said.

Foreign missions

When he registered for military service during World War II, he was rejected, but was able to land work with the Civil Service Commission. He worked in Morocco dealing with refugees in the spring, summer and fall of 1944 and was in charge of a group of 500 Greek refugees in Algiers.

He also assisted refugees in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"We lost six refugees in one week in Addis Abadda. At this point I haven't been to a funeral since my father's death when I was 13, because it was such a blow, but I went to each of these six funerals," Brown said.

Brown ran a refugee camp in the Sinai Desert for 14 months with a camp population of about 1,000.

"A baby a week was born and there was not a single death at the refugee camp in the Sinai Desert," Brown added.

He returned to Reed City in 1948 and worked at Brown's Store for a while before continuing his education. He earned his masters at Georgetown University.

"I met the lady who was to become my dear wife during a tea-party dance. We married, spent four years in Germany and had two babies. We also went to Bombay, India, then spent more time in Germany. We then moved to Washington, D.C., where our third child was born. We then spent four years in the Hague, Netherlands and learned Dutch. It is a funny language. The Dutch are great and have beautiful art galleries.

"My time at the Hague was a high spot in my diplomatic career, touring the Rijksmuseum with a glass of sherry. The things you remember," he said. "One time I was sailing with my dear wife in a canal and we were headed toward a wall. I yelled for her to grab the rope, and she said not to speak to her like that. We ended up crashing into the canal wall. Women of the Hague didn't care much for sailing. They said it was hard on their hair," Brown said.

His family then relocated to Ottawa,Canada for three years.

He remembered presidential visits to other countries during his career.

"Presidential visits are horrible things," he said. "There are Secret Service agents with guns, and places like Ottawa didn't like that. They felt the Mounties could handle protective services themselves."

Brown was an usher at a state dinner during a German visit in 1963, during which Kennedy gave his "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. He particularly recalled Kennedy's Boston accent while saying, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

Final work years and retirement

It was during Brown's stay in Ottawa his wife became ill.

"My dear wife's cancer presented itself in Ottawa and we no longer were posted abroad. From 1973 to 1980 we were in Washington, D.C., where I was an intelligence coordinator for the last five years leading up to my retirement. After retirement I spent many moments of happy matrimony with my wife, and we traveled a lot, until her death in 1990," he said.

Brown returned to his boyhood home in Reed City in 1999. Along with keeping up with news in the world from the comfort of his home, he also enjoys music.

"Interlochen and Blue Lake public radio stations put out beautiful music," he said. "It reminds me of the time I saw Verdi's opera, "Aida," at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. Live camels paraded through the set. And I still remember the opening crescendo of Brahms' first symphony performed by the symphony orchestra at Olivet when I was a student there."

He also enjoys reading the New Yorker, the Economist and Margaret MacMillon books about World War I.

Most of all, he says after all the years of traveling the world, there is nothing like the local air and local water.