A community remembers Lt. Col. Robert Brown
When Waynesville lost a native son who earned some of the highest military honors bestowed, it was a time to remember all he accomplished before his death at age 56.
Lt. Col. Robert Brown died March 18 and was buried Monday with full military honors, including a U.S. Force flyover. He was known by his military friends as "Muck," a nickname that followed him throughout his career after he emerged from a turtle hunt in a Louisiana swamp covered with swamp muck.
Locally, Brown is remembered for his bringing the Tuscola High School JROTC program to new heights, as one of the best drummers the school ever produced, a young artist who could draw airplanes with uncanny precision and a man who made a point to always inspire others, something he did with a story, a smile and a few encouraging words.
As he fought the greatest of all battles against a pernicious form of bladder cancer, he found time to substitute teach nearly to the end and to voice his concerns about federal budget cuts that threatened to mothball the A-10, a close air support fighter plane known as the Warthog that could deliver military ordnance with precision.
"We will pay in blood if the A-10 goes away without a suitable replacement," Brown is remembered saying in a 2013 effort to keep funding for the aircraft, reported the Arizona Daily Independent.
Brown's father, Glenn, cherishes the time he had with his son.
"I've never known a couple that has had more support, both nationally and internationally, during a time like this," Glenn Brown said of Robert and his wife, Martha, who founded and leads the Voices in the Laurel Children's Choir. He’s been a great son and brought us a lot of joy, and a lot of hope."
Brown's widow, Martha, likewise cherishes her time with Robert.
“I am truly blessed to have been married to such a loving and loyal husband, and wonderful role model for my children,” she said. “Music was the catalyst that brought us together, and one of the things we most enjoyed was making music. Our love story can be summed up in a song our friends sang at our wedding, ‘God Bless the Broken Road.’ I was married to Robert for only seven short years, someone reminded me that seven is the perfect number. In those seven years, we had the love most people don’t experience in a lifetime. Robert will always be my steady beat.”
Linda Estes, a special education teacher at Waynesville Middle School, said Brown substitute taught for several teachers on her team up until just several months ago.
“He never complained,” she said. “He was just always so funny and so thankful to be in our classrooms. He would say, ‘you guys have blessed my day’ and would tell students what he has seen in the military. The kids just adored him.”
Jimmy Jackson, who knew Brown since childhood remembered him as the best drummer he ever knew.
"Robert was the best drummer Tuscola had ever seen, or probably ever will for that part. He was technically perfect and had a musical sense that was uncanny," Jackson said. "Even though we had him on this earth only 56 years, he touched so many lives in such a positive way, he will never be forgotten."
The Rev. Gary L. Hearon, was a pastor at Waynesville First Baptist Church when Brown was growing up.
"When we retired to Waynesville a little more than a year ago, my wife and I became reacquainted with Robert and his family. His valor and courage in his battle with cancer have inspired and encouraged us as well as others. He was never beaten; he never gave up," he wrote. "Robert Brown is not dead, for he is with the Lord. What he left behind will also never die: faith, hope, love, character, truth, honor, and faithfulness to God and country."
Lora Brown said her son, PFC R. Kole Brown (Army), drove 14 hours from Ft. Polk, Louisiana to pay his last respects to Lt. Col. Brown on Monday.
"This man had such a huge influence and molded so many young lives, my son, daughter-in-law and nephew included," she wrote. "I always knew that my son would enlist in the military after he graduated from high school and know that his three years under Lt. Col. Brown leadership at THS AFJROTC helped him prepare for this path in life. He will be greatly missed, but knowing he is flying his beloved A-10 off into the wild blue yonder leaves a smile on all of our faces.
In a Facebook post, Savanna Brown wrote that Brown helped shape many young adults into outstanding people, including every cadet in NC-075 who was willing to listen and understand their true potential.
First Lt. Brian Sears, a Tuscola graduate, said it was a great honor knowing Col. Brown.
"His passions for the Air Force, flying, and especially his beloved A-10 Warthog were infectious," Sears wrote. "We didn't know how lucky we were to have him, and really what a big deal he was until the trip we took to Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville. Lt. Col. Brown was too humble to let us in on the secret that he was basically God's gift to the Air Force, especially in the A-10 community. It was a surreal experience having impressive military officers treating our ROTC Instructor like a celebrity and worshiping the ground he walked on."
Sears said he loved hearing Brown explain why he came back to teach ROTC.
"He recalled being a freshman at Tuscola, enrolled in ROTC in a class taught by a veteran of WWII. 'I was just a knucklehead. I took it all for granted,' he would say. He ended up deciding that ROTC just wasn't for him, that he'd rather go play drums in the band. He had a rather circuitous journey in the years that followed, before finding himself spending all his time as a legislative staffer in Washington studying up on defense policy so he could read about airplanes. 'So, he would say, 'I thought I would come back home, try to give back, and maybe help a few knuckleheads like me,'" Sears wrote.
Brown's dear friend, Dr. David Mullholland noted that his life had been changed for the better because of knowing him.
"He had a very critical mind and was the most principled person I have ever met," Mullholland wrote. "He loved God, his wife and family, the US Air Force and his country. Robert walked the walk not just talked the talk. He was a humble and never boastful man. He truly wanted the best for everyone and would help anyone who needed him."
This tribute was sent in by Carol Zinavage
My friend Robert died.
When you’re in high school, nobody tells you that you’ll always carry a teenager around inside of you, and that all the people who came of age with you will seem, to you, forever young.
Anyway, like I was saying, my friend Robert died.
If you were in Waynesville on Monday, March 24 around 4 p.m., you likely had trouble getting around town. That’s because every intersection from First Baptist all the way down Haywood Street up Russ Avenue to Garrett-Hillcrest cemetery was blocked off. Every member of the police force and fire department seemed to be out, clearing the way so that those who knew and loved Robert could pass without obstruction.
You may have noticed two jets flying over around 4.30. They weren’t the kind of jets you normally see – sleek and silent, leaving a pretty trail high in the sky. These planes were dark, brutish and muscular, flying low. They seared a thunderous path through the sky that was, in the words of someone who was there, “unraveling.”
One of them dipped its wings. That’s the way an A-10 Warthog salutes.
The man they were saluting was Lt. Colonel Robert “Muck” Brown, who, in his stellar Air Force career, garnered so many awards and medals that his obituary only lists the top eleven. He may have been, according to one of his colleagues who spoke at his funeral, “the best attack pilot this country has ever seen.”
But that wasn’t the guy I knew.
“Hey, come over here,” said Robert’s voice on the phone, forty years ago. “You’ve got to hear this! Can you come?”
The Brown home was beautifully appointed. His lovely mom Evelyn knew what she liked, and her deft touch was everywhere. She also knew what her youngest boy liked. She’d told her decorator to accommodate his big beautiful drum set right in the middle of his room. “Come in here!” Robert said excitedly, pulling me down the hall. “You’ve got to hear this!”
He put a record on the turntable, then scrambled to get behind the drums. “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends!” sang a voice. The music built and built, pounding through the powerful speakers, and when the entire band kicked in, so did Robert.
My heart leapt into my throat.
Because he was like a dervish on those drums. “Can you believe this?!” he yelled between drum breaks, his eyes laughing and full of joy, “Isn’t it GREAT?”
He meant the band, “Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” but Robert was the one who made the moment into something I’ll never forget as long as I live.
On the wall of the Tuscola Band Room, high up in the back, there’s a painting of a grizzled old Mountaineer holding a jug that says, “98.7 proof.” That was the score we’d earned at the Bristol competition that year – the highest ever at the time for The Marching Mountaineers. Robert painted it, along with Terry Painter, whom you know as the gifted potter who has owned and run “The Different Drummer” in Maggie Valley for many years. I notice the band kids have kept it in sight. There are shelves cluttered with trophies surrounding it now.
Robert would like that.
Back in the days when the words “desert storm” only conjured visions of blowing sand and baking wind – back when we barely knew who the Iraqis were, much less that they needed Freedom, Robert’s eyes were already turning skyward. Blessed with so many gifts, he chose to direct his energies where they were needed most when the time came.
And back when the words “tumors” and “malignancies” meant things that happened to other, older people – a separate lifetime, before the endless rounds of surgery, chemo, raised hopes, dashed hopes – before the hushed corridors and kind, muted voices of hospice, when an inconsolable wife and children were only characters in a sad movie, Robert Brown lit up the world in a way that no one else ever has.
“He was my hero,” says his daughter, Anna.
He was my friend.
“Hey, come on over!! Can you believe this? Isn’t it GREAT?!”
Carol Zinavage, Tuscola Class of 1974