Herbie Brown died April 25, 2014, in Cranston, Rhode Island. He was 96 years old. His funeral drew over a hundred mourners.
Unlike his brothers — one was the law school roommate of Lyndon Johnson — Herbie stayed home after their father died, and went to work at 16. There could have been regrets or comparisons, but he did not believe in regrets and comparisons.
For years, he owned a boy’s and men’s clothing store, Herbert Brown, Incorporated — iconic in Providence. Jewish boys bought bar mitzvah suits there; private school boys bought ties and uniform jackets. He was so well-recognized and well-loved that his young daughters thought he was mayor.
Then the seventies arrived. Office wear devolved from formal to casual; private school students stopped wearing ties and jackets, multi-tasking malls became destinations. When Herbert Brown, Incorporated went out of business, Herbie paid every creditor. It was a point of pride.
He believed in optimism, and in art. During his Bargello period, he needlepointed 10 French Provincial dining-room chairs in different patterns. He had a mosaic period and an abstract painting period.
But the music period was continuous. He played and composed on piano hours a day, and in his seventies regularly volunteered at local nursing homes. For this gig, he cast aside his Herbie Brown, Incorporated, tie, and wore a top hat.
Though mayor in his daughters’ eyes, he longed for a larger constituency. He plugged his songs in New York and searched out audiences for his poetry — once trying to reach Maya Angelou on the phone. His hopes were so buoyant he might have floated away, an untethered force of nature, if his wife hadn’t held onto the string of his life for 65 years.
The Internet fascinated him. He’d go on what he called “The Google” to learn how many rivers there were in the world, then call around to share the results. On the other hand, he never learned to use the save function on his computer, and had to type each poem he wrote over and over. Probably this gave him pleasure, like almost everything else.
“I don’t mind growing older, “ he wrote in one poem he retyped many times. “I just hate to grow old.”
Did you know Herbie Brown? Share your memories in the comments section.