About six weeks ago, my family members and I were thrown two curve balls – each traveling at 100 miles per hour. My paternal uncle, Leroy Brown, and his wife, Ola Brown, were involved in a very serious car crash while returning from a two week road-trip that included attending a grandson’s graduation and visiting with relatives and friends.
While some of the details remain sketchy, the crash occurred during the early morning of Friday, May 27, 2016. Even more ironic, the accident occurred about 10 miles from their home in Sacramento. These details set the stage for an emotional roller coaster ride that ended on Thursday, June 2, 2016, when both my aunt and uncle succumbed to their injuries. Needless to say, my family members and I were both stunned and numbed by this string of fast-changing events.
I have limited knowledge and memory of my aunt and uncle while growing up in South Carolina, however, beginning with my undergraduate education at Howard University, both played a more pivotal role in assisting me in shaping my adult life and professional career. This post is just a small way for me to express my gratitude to them for their kindness, friendship, and assistance that they extended to me over the years.
Content credits for a significant part of this post goes to my cousin, Rita Brown Bermudez, MD, and assistance with editing was provided by my Aunt Ruth Robinson.
Leroy Bradford Brown, Sr. was born on June 5, 1929 in Detroit, MI to Allie Brown and Fannie Hubbard Brown. With his older brother, Herbert “Turdlie Dove” Brown, the family lived in Detroit where his father, an engineering graduate, worked for the Henry Ford Motor Co. Sadly, when Leroy was just one year old, his father died of meningitis.
Unemployed and a widow, Fannie gathered her two sons and their belongings and returned to her ancestral home in Orangeburg, SC where life was ruled by the strict law and order of her father, Charlie Hubbard, who was also locally known as Boss Charlie to most people. Born on December 3, 1869 — just a few short years after the end of the Civil War and slavery — Boss Charlie owned a 426-acre farm. It took quite a bit of physical labor to operate a farm of this size. Boss Charlie employed most of his children in his farming operation at one time or another.
Leroy was convinced that only an education would save him from a life spent plowing and viewing the backside of a mule. Intelligent and hardworking, he completed high school by age 15 with the hopes of going to college. However, after a falling out with Boss Charlie over the wages that he was not being paid, he was sent back to live with his mother who, by then, had remarried.
Rejected by his stepfather, he began living and working with his Uncle Ebbie Hubbard, who trained him to be a master carpenter – a skill he would use for the rest of his life. Their building team also included Ebbie’s brother, Robert, who is also credited with helping his nephew learn the craft of woodworking and constructing buildings.
At 17, Leroy enlisted in the military just after the end of WWII. He joined the United States Marine Corp (USMC) because a recruiter told him that African Americans were allowed to fly fighter planes. However, upon starting boot camp at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC, he discovered that the recruiter had sold him a bag of goods. He would not be allowed anywhere near the planes he so wanted to fly.
One of my recollections about my uncle’s experience in the Marine Corp is that he was hoping to be selected for an overseas assignment so that he could see another part of the world. However, his commanding officer valued his typing skills more than his quest for bravado, and kept him locally with him. Leroy was honorably discharged as a corporal in 1952.
While he couldn’t fly the planes he loved, he did pursue the greatest love of his life, for it was in the Marines that he first glimpsed the photo of a young woman named Ola Augusta Watkins. Mesmerized by the woman with the flowing black hair, he begged her brother, Price Watkins, for her address, and promptly began writing to her faithfully. The first time he became eligible for military leave, he went to meet her and immediately proposed. She said, No. Disappointed but persistent, Leroy continued to write to Ola.
Returning to Mississippi on a second leave, Leroy proposed again. His prospects were improving. This time she said, Maybe. Asking what it would take to get a “yes” out of her?, Ola said she always wanted to marry a doctor. Leroy, who had been hoping to become an aeronautical engineer, quickly let her know that it was his lifelong dream to become a doctor. She finally said, Yes! Taking no chances, Leroy whisked her across the state line to Arkansas where one could get married in a day. They were married on January 3, 1952.
Leroy, now in college on the GI bill, discreetly changed his major to chemistry and started applying to medical schools. He graduated from South Carolina State College with all As except for a C in French (and if you ever heard him try to speak French, it’s amazing that he managed to get a C out of the class).
Ola Augusta Watkins was born on October 31, 1929 in Westpoint, MS, the 4th of 17 children. Her parents, Wooster Watkins and Alice Brown Watkins, were farmers. Ola grew up raising goats and chickens, picking cotton, churning butter, and selling eggs and milk. With a childhood spent caring for her siblings, she was responsible and organized, but (according to her brother) a rather bossy girl. She was the favorite of her Irish grandfather and envied by others for her long black tresses and high cheekbones she inherited from her Choctaw ancestors. She graduated from Mary Holmes Junior College in 1949 where she learned to sew the fashionable clothes she always wore. Later she graduated from the Collins Chapel Connections Hospital in Memphis, TN with a degree in nursing.
With many suitors, Ola already had a proposal of marriage from a doctor when she met Leroy. Charmed by his wit, strength, and good nature, she was not sure if she should spend her life with this fellow who said he could do anything with God’s help. However, Ola’s mother told her: Marry him, Ola! That one has a big brain.
Together, Leroy and Ola worked to make their dreams as a couple come true. Leroy was accepted to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, a whites only school at that time. When the notorious segregationist, Senator Strom Thurmond, got wind of this, he arranged for Leroy to receive a unique offer: the state would pay his tuition if he attended the local black only medical school. Leroy raised the stakes: he would take the state’s tuition offer only if he could attend the prestigious Howard University in Washington, DC. In other words, since he couldn’t attend his school of choice in South Carolina, he felt that he should be able to select the alternate school that was out-of-state.
So-o-o, Leroy received $500 annually from the State of South Carolina while Ola worked at the local Seventh Day Adventist hospital to cover their remaining expenses. During that time, Leroy B. Brown, Jr. and Rene Brown, were born. Leroy often dragged his sleepy boys to medical school with him. He earned his medical degree with a specialty in internal medicine.
Leroy completed his internship at Fresno County Hospital where his daughter, Rita Brown, was born. A year later, they moved to Sacramento. Together, Leroy and Ola opened a private practice in internal medicine. Ola was the nurse, receptionist, typist, etc. at work as well as the chief bottle washer and cook at home. In other words, she ran the show.
Concurrently, Leroy worked for the Department of Corrections as a medical doctor for prison inmates. He also achieved his dream and life-long ambition of taking flying lessons. He earned his pilot’s license. I always knew that obtaining his medical degree was very important to my uncle. However, getting his pilot’s license and later, instrument rating, appeared to take on a life of their own and opened up what some might call Act II of his professional career.
These new credentials assisted him in moving into an assignment with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as a medical examiner where he was able to share his love of aviation and God with a number of pilots, some who became life-long friends. He purchased a Beechcraft Baron and Super Cub, and with Ola in the co-pilot’s seat, they crisscrossed the country numerous times.
In 1964, Leroy and Ola, with the help of their children, began building the house of their dreams along the Sacramento River. For seven years, they both came home from the office to work on their home. And what a home it turned out to be! It was everything Ola wanted and was finely constructed with steel foundation, stone exterior, hardwood flooring and wood paneling throughout.
Later, during their 60s, Leroy and Ola both took up karate with their grandchildren, EB and Justin. All four earned their black belts with Ola being able to karate chop a board with her elbow. While visiting with me in Mesa, AZ during the mid-1990s, this foursome made use of an empty living room by practicing the techniques and movement associated with this martial art.
In all that has been shared above, first and foremost, Leroy and Ola enjoyed sharing their love for God. During his many years of medical practice, Leroy would often recollect numerous stories about his “dear heavenly Father”, and how much he loved Him. Both were members of the Church of God 7th Day where Leroy, being an orphan himself, started the widows and orphans fund. [While some of you may question the use of the term orphan, his reference is to the Biblical definition of orphan: In the Old Testament (OT), “orphan” is a Hebrew word meaning “fatherless”. By definition and OT usage, an orphan is a child who has lost his father, the primary provider of the home.]
An interesting point that I want to share with my readers is that my aunt and uncle, along with my mother and father were either born and/or grew up during the Great Depression. Most historical accounts list the Great Depression as starting soon after the stock market crash of October 1929. Wikipedia cites it as the deepest and longest-lasting economic downturn in the history of the Western industrialized world. They grew up as children during the Great Depression. They experienced their fair share of hard times, however, they were not afraid of hard work. Each had a strong sense and fear of God, and always wanted better things for their children.
Leroy and Ola will be deeply missed by their family and friends for their strong values, generous nature, and above all, the deep and everlasting love they had for each other. Preceded in death by their oldest son, Leroy Bradford Brown, Jr., MD, they are survived by their two younger children, Rene Brown (Linda) and Rita Brown Bermudez , MD (Eduardo) and their six grandchildren: Daniel Brown, E.B. Bermudez, MD, Kathryn Brown, Justin Bermudez, Augusta Brown, and Tamara Brown in addition to his brother, Herbert, and a large extended family that includes many pilots, patients, and colleagues.