Washington County mourns Ralph Brown
Washington County is mourning the loss of one of its most active public servants and leaders, as the yearlong search for Ralph Brown officially came to a close this week.
Brown grew up in Astoria and, according to his daughter Laurie Saunders, met his wife Carol in middle school.
For 40 years in the Hillsboro School District — as a teacher, counselor and principal — Brown taught and mentored students who then grew up and sent their own kids to his classrooms. He dressed as a clown at assemblies and worked all types of sporting events, especially cross-country races and track meets.
"What can I say — I just love kids. I always wanted to be a positive influence, so that's what I tried to do."," Brown told the Pamplin Media Group in February 2021, just three months before his disappearance. "I always thought it was important to talk with these kids and really get to know them. 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."
As a teacher and father of two, he took advantage of summers off to return to the coast to camp, bike and run.
Saunders said growing up, she almost dreaded how the family couldn't go out without running into somebody from school and talking for 20 minutes. Even on a family getaway to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, they still managed to run into former students.
"It was in a ghost town in Wyoming. I remember thinking, 'Oh my goodness, this can't be true,'" Saunders said.
In retirement, Brown, who founded the Oregon Road Runners Club, served as mayor of Cornelius and later as a Forest Grove School District board member. He also cut neighbors' lawns — and he never stopped running into former students.
"They always want him to know that they're successful," Carol Brown told Pamplin Media in February 2021. "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."
His son Daryle teaches at Harvey Clarke Elementary School in Forest Grove, while Carol still lives in the same house in Cornelius.
Those who knew Ralph and Carol Brown as a couple said they were a good combinations of brains and heart.
"My mom was always the brains of the outfit. Even though he has a million degrees, she was the one who helped him get those degrees. He's the one with the heart," Saunders said.
Former Beaverton mayor and current Cornelius city manager Rob Drake seconded that notion.
"There were a lot of pluses with Ralph. For example, when you got Ralph involved, it also meant his wife Carol was not far behind, and that was a nice combination package. Carol was always so helpful," Drake said. "Once you you make a friend, keep a friend. He was really good at that. Ralph never said no about helping."
Former Forest Grove High School teacher and running coach Sue Fleskes said she started coordinating volunteers shortly after Ralph Brown went missing in May 2021.
Ralph Brown suffered from memory loss in his final months. He left home in his blue Nissan Sentra on May 16, 2021, telling Carol he was "going home," Saunders told Pamplin Media last year.
Cellphone data gave unspecific clues of his whereabouts. At one point on the night of his disappearance, Ralph Brown answered his phone when Saunders called, but the connection was poor and he didn't know where he was, telling her he was "in the bushes."
Volunteers searched parks and trails by foot and flying drone for months, posted flyers, and added Brown to national missing persons databases, but for nearly a year, they found nothing.
"People started calling me 24/7 asking how they could help. I made a map based on the pings and identified a bunch of maybes," Fleskes said. "I was surprised by not only the volume of people who wanted to help but how far they were willing to go and willing to drive and the time they were willing to devote. I was amazed."
The last ping in the cellphone records was near Newberg and Rogers Landing County Park. Brown's vehicle was found there last Friday, May 13. A deputy state medical examiner confirmed Tuesday, May 17, that remains found inside the vehicle — which had been submerged beneath 45 feet of water — were those of Brown.
Saunders said private search and rescue company Adventures With Purpose, the outfit that located Brown's vehicle last week, initiated their own search without the family asking for help.
"Cold Case Diver" Doug Bishop explained in a YouTube video posted this week — Adventures With Purpose's YouTube channel has over 2 million followers — that the Adventures With Purpose searched for Brown on nine different occasions, including three near in the eventual discovery spot, before locating the vehicle with sonar. Bishop dove down though current and debris and identified the license plate.
The Yamhill County Sheriff's Office was called out. Portland-based Northwestern Towing & Recovery provided a heavy-duty rotator tow truck to lift the vehicle out of the Willamette River. Authorities confirmed the discovery. The search for Ralph Brown was over.
Fleskes said that in total, more than 200 people volunteered in some capacity during the search.
"We are so blessed to have that many people embrace our family, but it's my dad and mom's karma," Saunders said. "It's just what they put out is what they got back. If it was my dad's friend, he would have been the one out there."
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