(Daddy and me on the beach in Atlantic City, circa 1955)
Little Big Man
Back in the 70’s Dustin Hoffman starred in a western called “Little Big Man.” I don’t really know what the movie was about, but as soon as I started to write this essay, the title came to mind, because my father, Thomas Franklin Brown stood only five feet two inches tall, yet he commanded more respect than any man I’ve ever known personally. He was an entrepreneur and a church leader, but it’s not the public man I want to tell you about. I want to tell you about Tommy Brown, my daddy.
One of my earliest memories is sitting with my cousins by the side of a dusty dirt road in Millville, New Jersey in front of my grandparent’s house watching him play softball with my aunts and uncles. Family was his top priority. We worshipped together as a family, we vacationed as a family and often worked together in the business he started when I was five years old.
Contrary to the well-meaning advice of friends and relatives, he started his own part-time printing business in our basement while he worked days as a pressman at a large printing company. Two years later he left the job and never looked back. When his business outgrew the house, he moved it to the first of a series of progressively larger rented buildings. Though he never had more than three full-time employees at any given time, he supported a wife, four children and, from time to time, assorted relatives on the income this business produced. I need to give my mother credit right here, because part of the reason he was able to do this was because she made a lot of our clothes and knew how to shop to save money. He never worked another outside job again, which was an amazing accomplishment for a black man in the 1950’s.
By today’s standards he would probably be considered strict in the sense that he expected us to be obedient. And we obeyed, not because we were afraid of him, but because the last thing we ever wanted to do was disappoint him. I’ll never forget the time when I was in seventh grade and got into a fight with the neighborhood bully. Embarrassed and humiliated by having his daughter involved in a street brawl, he made arrangements with the Chief of Police in our small town and the other girl’s mother for us to be given a lecture and personal guided tour of the township jail by a uniformed officer in an effort to scare us straight. I don’t know about her, but the experience sure did the trick for me. As a result of his ‘style,’ not one of his four children (now all over the age of fifty) has ever been arrested.
We weren’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but Tommy Brown was a giver from his heart. He never failed to go overboard at Christmas and on birthdays, but when we wanted something in between those special occasions, his mantra was, ‘you save half and I’ll give you the other half. Of course, we usually earned the money by working in his print shop folding, stapling, and collating and sweeping. He definitely got his money’s worth out of us.
A jazz fanatic who had an impressive collection of 78’s and 33’s, he always worked with his music playing. I believe his children all grew up to be avid music lovers because, prior to moving the business out of the house, he built speakers into the walls of the basement in order to hear the music over the hum of the presses. When he cranked it up, we could feel the floors upstairs vibrate beneath our feet. Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Earl Grant, Jimmy Smith and Ray Charles provided the soundtrack for our childhood.
Even though he worked ridiculously long hours, he knew how to have fun. In his younger days, he loved to host big backyard barbecues for which, of course, my mother did all of the work. And those summertime gatherings usually ended with the kids toasting marshmallows over the fire on the grill while the grown-ups played rowdy games of badminton and horseshoes. I’m hard pressed to recall a time when our back yard wasn’t much more than two huge bare spots on either side of the net at the end of the summer.
Never one to put vacations on the back burner in favor of the business. he and my mother always came up with fun outings for us. When money was low, we did local excursions to the early amusement parks -- Olympic Park and Palisades Park -- which have long since disappeared. With air fares being out of their financial reach back then, we traveled everywhere we went by car -- Atlantic City, Freedomland, Bear Mountain, Sebego Lake in New York and Hershey Park, Pennyslvania. Once we grew up, he and my mother were finally able to fly to Bermuda, Puerto Rico and Canada, and took my daughter, Crystal along with them when she was little.
Sadly, in telling this story to people over the years, I’ve often received looks of disbelief. That’s when I realized just how uncommon my story is and how blessed we were. Tommy Brown’s name will never be written in any hall of fame, but he was a man of incredible pride, faith and integrity. He didn’t go to bars or hang out with his buddies. His idea of relaxation was to stretch out in his recliner and watch the Mets at Shea Stadium on television. He went to work, to church, to Chamber of Commerce meetings and spent his free time with his family, which included his nine brothers and sisters and their children.
During times that I only vaguely recall as stressful, his mother moved in to live with us when she became too sick to care for herself. Years later, after her passing, another hospital bed was delivered for one of his brothers who came to live with us when he succumbed to the deterioration of advanced diabetes.
At my father’s seventieth birthday party, my sister, who lived in Atlanta, was unable to attend. She sent a taped message thanking him for being the man he was. As she spoke through tears, she told him how grateful she was that we never had those stories to tell like so many children unfortunately do - the ones about eating mayonnaise sandwiches because there wasn’t any food in the house, or having to do their homework by candlelight because the electricity was turned off, or watching their mother go down to the local bar to drag their father out.
My father went home to be with the Lord in 1995. His funeral was a testament to the greatness of an “everyday” man. My brothers, sister and I were overwhelmed by the turnout of not only friends and neighbors, but also of township officials, former business associates and even the ninety-year-old doctor who had delivered all of us into the world.
Today’s fathers could learn a lot from the lives of men like Tommy Brown. He stood only five feet two inches tall, but to me he was a giant.
Thank you, Daddy!