OPINION: Remembering Ralph Brown
Ralph Brown lived an "extraordinary life of love and service."
Of all the platitudes that have appeared on social media in recent days honoring Brown — mayor, educator, school board member and booster club president, but most significantly husband, father, grandfather and friend — that was the one that resonated the most, the one that seemed to fit him best.
Brown, who did not live to see his 77th birthday, nonetheless spent his time on this earth working to make things better for others. When rescue divers pulled his blue Nissan Sentra from the Willamette River near Newberg on May 13, and after human remains were discovered inside, his family could begin — after a torturously long year of searching and hoping — to process their enormous loss.
Finally, mercifully, his wife Carol, and their children and grandchildren, have answers.
The Cornelius and Forest Grove and Hillsboro communities have closure.
And, Ralph's former colleagues and comrades in his wide-ranging sphere of influence can mourn and honor the man whose gentle demeanor, twinkling eyes and gregarious personality were always there for them.
The first time I met Ralph, before a Sunday service at the Forest Grove United Church of Christ in 2005, he extended his hand and welcomed me, a newcomer to town and to the staff of the city's weekly newspaper, the News-Times. Somehow, he already knew I'd been hired on as the paper's associate editor. "Glad you're here," he said, or something quite similar, outside the sanctuary's glass doors, Carol at his side, both of them wearing name badges and wide smiles.
I'd soon discover, in my role as education reporter, that Brown — a member of the Forest Grove school board — never shied away from tackling tough topics, collective bargaining and classroom overcrowding and budget crises among them, always doing his homework, regularly stopping by the News-Times office to check in.
"Thought I'd give you a heads up," he might say, and proceed to elucidate a thorny issue for me in a manner that was kind, and helpful, and uncondescending. He trusted me to keep my word when we went off the record in an interview, and to write the story with care, treating my sources fairly. I trusted him to share what he knew, whenever he could, and leave the rest to me. As a journalist, I was always grateful for that.
There was a serious side to Ralph, but also a fun-loving one. He was a man who enjoyed a microphone, but he used it to toot others' horns, not his own. When he stood at a podium, starting a race for the Oregon Road Runners Club or announcing prize-winners afterward, his signature grin made everyone feel happy they were there.
If he showed up at the annual Corn Roast, it was to help grill the food or clean up when the fall festivities were over.
Never short of ideas for new ways to serve his community, Ralph joined forces with Oregon's I Have A Dream Foundation to mentor students from third grade to high school in the area of leadership. Over the years, he and Carol sponsored their IHAD kids the way they did most things: together.
Long after leaving the News-Times, I learned my friend Ralph had begun to experience memory loss, a malady I understood, as my own mother suffered from dementia in her later years.
On May 16, 2021, Ralph walked out of his house in Cornelius after telling his wife he was "going home." Twelve interminable months later, the mystery of what happened to him has been solved. Now, all those who loved and admired him can rest from their wanderings and remember Ralph Brown not as an icon, but as a human being who showed up, did his best and gave others his all.
Nancy Townsley is a Pamplin Media Group editor and former managing editor of the News-Times and the Hillsboro Tribune.
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