Ralph Brown is still giving
"What can I do to help?"
That's a phrase Ralph Brown lives by. He's spent the bulk of his adult time not only doing what he can to help, but focusing on how to help the people he has always believed should come first — kids.
"I think Ralph would've been the perfect teammate because it didn't matter to him if he got in the game, he just wanted to be on the team," Brown's former colleague and friend Neil Strachan said. "Whatever he could do to contribute, he would do."
Strachan, a Forest Grove High School graduate and Athletic Hall of Famer, first worked with Ralph Brown in the 1980s at what is now R.A. Brown Middle School. Strachan was beginning his career as a physical education instructor at the intermediate school, and Brown — no relation to the school's namesake, Raymond Arthur Brown — was vice principal. The two got along from the start, but as their friendship grew, Strachan said, so did his level of respect and admiration for the man he said became an instrumental force in his career.
"The thing that I always appreciated about Ralph was that the kids always came first," Strachan said. "He was a very good mentor to me as a young teacher, and when I had questions, I'd always go to Ralph. He usually had the other side of the story for me, and I appreciated that."
Brown was born and raised in Astoria. He married his childhood sweetheart, Carol, and from the time he was one himself, he wanted to work with kids. Throughout elementary school, through the Boy Scouts and during his time in college, he knew he wanted to teach.
As a "big kid" himself, Brown has always felt akin to the wants and needs of children, and to the idea of nurturing them in the best way possible.
"What can I say — I just love kids," Brown said. "I always wanted to be a positive influence, so that's what I tried to do."
And that's what he did, through stops in Warrenton, where he taught social studies, then to the Hillsboro School District, where he taught, counseled and then settled in as an administrator.
Ralph and Carol Brown also gave back in the field of youth athletics, running kids' sports activities in Cornelius. Ralph also helped with track and cross country meets, along with various other activities throughout his time in Hillsboro.
Steve Drake has worked with Brown for years. Drake, who is Hillsboro High School's longtime athletic director, describes Brown as a core member of the Hillsboro sports community, providing stewardship for decades' worth of Hillsboro-area athletes.
"He's always encouraging the kids," Drake said. "It doesn't matter whether they finish first or last, he's there to shake hands with them all. Ralph wants every kid to have the opportunity to feel good about what they've done and who they are."
Drake has an old leather briefcase that Brown gifted him years ago. It has the initials "RB" etched on the side, and he uses it to carry the backup timing system for track meets.
When Drake looks at the case, it reminds him of Hilhi athletic stalwarts like Larry Binkerd, Tom Fishback, Ken Smith and, of course, Ralph Brown. That means something to Drake, and more importantly, something more to the school and Hillsboro area.
"So not only is Ralph with us physically, but his heritage continues, and that's how much he means to me and Hilhi," Drake said. "Sure, it's a bit raggedy, but it means a lot to me and I'll keep using it, and I'll give it to the next AD when I'm gone."
Strachan tells similar stories. He and Brown, an avid runner, used to partake in running and cycling endeavors, including the "Seattle to Portland" bike race. Strachan will tell you stories that speak not to Brown's prowess in the competitive arena, but more so about his will to succeed. He always gave his best, Strachan said, and he did all he could to make others better be it on the track, in the classroom, and more importantly beyond it.
"You get into teaching for one reason, which was the kids," Strachan said. "Ralph showed me that you can make a difference, and Ralph definitely made a difference in a lot of people's lives. That's why Brown Junior High was such an awesome place. It had to be one of the best schools in the state and a lot of that had to do with Ralph."
Brown said he has empathy for what teachers have gone through over the past year as a result of the ongoing pandemic. Among the many current educators he knows, Brown noted, his son is a teacher. He said the pandemic and remote learning have taken a lot of the fun out of the job, and at the same time, they've made learning a job for the kids.
But despite the hurdles for both instructors and students, Brown said, it's more important than ever for teachers and administrators to connect with kids in the interest of everyone going forward.
"I always thought it was important to talk with these kids and really get to know them," Brown said. "I never had a kid get mad at me, and I felt like a lot of that was because I was fair with them and got to know them. I think that's why I had some success."
And he still sees those kids — sometimes at events, sometimes on the street and sometimes in the grocery store, where they're excited to tell him how they're doing.
"They always want him to know that they're successful," Carol Brown said. "Whether they were good kids or maybe got into a little bit of trouble, they want him to know they're doing fine, and that means a lot to him."
In retirement, Ralph Brown remains involved in the community, having served as mayor of Cornelius, sat on the Forest Grove School Board, and been involved with various booster and Rotary clubs, and you can still see him near the finish line at Hillsboro's famed Elden Kellar Invitational. So while his professional career may be over, the way in which he went about it is alive and well — and the community to which he's given so much remains appreciative.
"If you looked up public servant in the dictionary, Ralph's name would be in capital letters," Drake said. "He's done about everything, and he's had an impact on it all. And he just keeps giving back."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.