On February 20th, 2023, my dad died. What follows is the extended obituary and memorial service details that can also be found here. But first, I want to share my experience of my dad’s death from the other side of the world in Bardia National Park, southern Nepal.
It was our first day looking for wildlife in Bardia. Erin and I and two other homestay guests were riding in the surprisingly comfy padded bench seats on the back of an Indian-made Mahindra jeep. About a week earlier, my mom told me that my dad had started eating and drinking less, which spurred me to change my flight back to Portland and go home much sooner than planned. The day before we left Pokhara for Bardia, I learned that my dad’s breathing had become labored, and I realized I might not make it back in time.
The reality that I wouldn’t be there to hold my dad’s hand was weighing heavily on me as we made our way to Bardia. I was doing my best to stay present, and I was holding it together well, right up until that day in the jeep. It was mid-morning, and as I was scanning the forest for leopards, a wave of sadness hit me. I found myself thinking about what I would say at my dad’s memorial–in other words, remembering my favorite things about him–and crying in the back of the jeep as the warm jungle wind hit my face. I wondered if this was it. I checked my watch, 10:14am (February 21) in Nepal, 8:29pm (February 20) in Portland.
For the next hour we wound through the forest and grasslands and over the sandy rivers in search of the elusive Bengal tiger, and I felt a peace that was indescribable. The leaves were hyper-green, the bird sounds hypnotizing, and I sank into my comfy bench seat appreciating the sun on my skin. Then it went away, and we made our way to our lunch spot overlooking the Karnali River.
I walked to the edge of our perch above the water and immediately saw a lone Ganges river dolphin swimming near the surface (the Karnali River is a tributary of the Ganges). Soon we were taking turns with the binoculars watching our own nature show in technicolor. Few of these dolphins remain and it is rare to see them. I was mesmerized. As others began their lunches, I kept watch. To me the dolphin glowed pink in the water. Erin told me it was grey. It didn’t matter to me, at that moment it was the most special thing in the world to me.
The text from my mom came as we were headed to our next stop, where I was able to call her. Dad had died at 10:30pm, February 20th, in Portland–12:15pm, February 21st, in Nepal–while we had been eating lunch on the other side of the world watching that lone dolphin play on its way upstream.
When I was a kid, my dad and I took a train to Clarksville, Iowa, to pack up his parents’ house after his dad died and his mom had come to live with us. When we were all packed up and ready to back the huge Jar-Tran moving truck out of the driveway, my dad paused and teary-eyed said, “I can see dad waving goodbye.” It confused me as a kid. But as we drove away from the spot where my mom told me that my dad had died, I looked up at the blue sky through the forest and could feel him everywhere. Like the universe was giving me a hug.
An extended obituary for my dad follows, but before that I would like to thank my mom. It was horribly difficult to figure out what to do about coming home. We talked through it extensively and, without her support, I would have wallowed in self-doubt. It didn’t work out. I couldn’t be there for my dad in his last days. But my mom was, as was his best friend James Kuhn, to whom I’m very grateful. And most importantly, shortly after my dad’s breathing became erratic my mom held the phone to his ear so I could say goodbye. I will never forget that.
Donald Camery Brown March 9, 1942-February 20, 2023
Memorial service to be held:
Sunday, April 16th, 2023
2pm-4pm (service 2:45pm-3:15pm)
Fleur de Lis
3930 NE Hancock St
(parking in neighborhood and in Mosaic Church Parking lot behind the cafe)
RSVP by April 2nd to Alex Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503.236.4460
Treats and coffee will be served (of course), and the dress is casual.
No flowers or gifts please. Donations in Don’s honor can be made to Oregon Food Bank or Doctors Without Borders.
Don was born in Independence, Iowa, to Reverand Paul Brown and Maurine Camery Brown. He is predeceased by his parents and his older brother John.
Don grew up the son of a Methodist Minister and the family moved frequently until they settled in Clarksville, Iowa, where he went to high school. Don was musically gifted, taking up the trombone in grade school in addition to the requisite church choir. He was an athletic kid and a fast runner. He juggled playing tight end for the high school football team and trombone for the marching band. Luckily, he was fast enough to sprint off the field in order to suit up for the halftime performances.
His fondest memories of childhood were centered around cars: Sunday drives, “Uncle Wigglies”—where the Brown Family would drive around just to see what was around the next corner; and, most of all, road trips to foreign destinations like Minnesota where picking blueberries was the highlight. After graduating from Clarksville High School, Don double-majored in music and philosophy at Rocky Mountain College in Montana. Rocky is where Don met lifelong friends Rusty and Maureen Redfield. Don didn’t get into too much trouble back then, but if he did, it was probably with Rusty.
Don refined his trombone skills at Rocky and stayed busy making money in a dance band that would tour to nearby towns on weekends. It is also at college that Don fell in love with choral music, thanks to the life-changing opportunity to play accompaniment for the school choir in a performance at the Seattle World’s Fair. After that he changed his major from instrumental to choral conducting and was mentored by well-known voice coach and choral conductor Robley Lawson. During his senior year, the choir was invited to perform at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where Don got to conduct.
The Vietnam War dominated the nation when Don graduated in 1964. Prior to graduation, a guest speaker from American Friends Service Committee planted a seed that Don would cultivate for a lifetime: peace as a goal. Don came to identify as a Pacifist and after graduation he joined the AFSC’s “Peace Caravan”. He spent the summer canvassing neighborhoods to support peace efforts. During the Caravan he travelled for the first time to Portland, OR, where the AFSC had an active office. It was there that he decided to apply for alternative service after receiving his draft notice. He attempted to continue working for AFSC in Portland as his alternative service, but eventually the Draft Board gave him two choices: Algeria or Hong Kong. He chose Hong Kong.
Don lived in Hong Kong for two years, helping Chinese refugees who fled from communism relocate to permanent housing from their camps on the crumbling hills above the city. While in Hong Kong he became enamored of Russian literature…and alcohol. The former so much so that he had his collection of 65 paperbacks re-bound in leather before leaving for home.
When the AFSC offered to fly him home or provide him with a travel stipend, he took the money and booked a tour across the U.S.S.R. on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. Don was good at chess, and now good at drinking, so he easily made friends on the journey with stops in Moscow, Odessa, and St Petersburg. This was Don’s most adventurous journey during his life and he loved to share the story of “the Russian spirit” that he found alive and well in this storied part of the world.
Unsurprisingly, returning home to Iowa didn’t satisfy him for long. He headed to New York City where he stayed at the YMCA and made friends, played volleyball and basketball, but didn’t find work. At some point someone told him that he could always be a social worker for the City so he applied, took the test, and started to work the next day. From there he moved into the personnel department at the NYC Board of Education.
He met his future wife, Allie, when she interviewed him for an evening job teaching civil servants how to pass advancement exams. This is where Don’s “Big Five” began.
In 1975, Allie took Don to his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and he got sober. For the next 47 years he proudly shared this experience with anyone who would listen, as getting sober opened the door for his next big life changes.
1976: Don and Allie were married by Don’s father Paul in a small ceremony at Lake Stahahi, New York.
1977: He became a father. Don and Allie raised Alex at their brownstone apartment in Brooklyn for his first year, but Don didn’t want Alex to grow up in the City.
1978: Portland was voted “most livable city” and it was decided; Don and Allie jumped into their 1960 Pontiac and headed across the country with Alex between them on the bench seat. Almost 1979: After months of job searching, one week before 1979, Don was hired to the personnel department at Providence Hospital in Portland, OR.
Immediately Providence became more than just a job for Don. Shortly after starting the job, he was invited to play basketball with some coworkers, which is where he met James Kuhn. A few years later Don and Allie moved into a house down the street from the Kuhn family, and they and their kids became lifelong friends.
At home, Don loved being involved with Alexander’s interests. He always yelled the loudest at Alex’s soccer games, “Go Alexander!”, yelled the loudest at track meets, “Like the wind, buddy!”, even at Alex’s first marathon at the age of 38, “All the way!” He was a great father, always open and encouraging Alex to try new things. He took Alex for his first road race, a Providence Fun Run, at the age of 5 and helped him cut the course when it was too long. He went to Cub Scout outings and although he was no great outdoorsman, he rallied the family for weekend campouts that helped shape Alex’s love of the outdoors.
Over the next 23 years Don’s role at Providence evolved from human resources to management training and eventually he started the Providence Academy to support internal management training programs. Don was a natural “people person”, and few things made him happier than to help others with their people skills. However, he was most proud of driving Providence’s School-to-Work projects where he partnered with the Oregon Education Department and especially of PALS (Providence and Laurelhurst School).
One project he particularly loved was the workplace handwashing video he coordinated. It was about proper handwashing, and it was shot and produced by Grant High School students, written by Fernwood Middle School (now Beverly Cleary) students, and with Laurelhurst grade school students as actors. For Don, the handwashing video was the perfect example of the potential for health and education to support each other.
Don rejoined his joy of conducting when he started an employee choir at Providence. For six years he conducted the choir, which performed at workplace events as well as holiday concerts at The Grotto and Festival of the Trees.
After retiring from Providence in 2002, Don wasn’t ready to settle in and watch the days go by, he wanted adventure. Don and Allie’s post-retirement travel began by visiting friends in Europe. Don had stayed at Hilu and Roland’s house in Germany while attending a school-to-work conference in the 90s. They became travel buddies, and the four of them eventually toured the U.S. and Europe together many times. In 2004, Don and Allie took a multi-week tour of Australia with Allie’s sister Sue and husband Frank. Don loved them both and was elated that he was able to share such an adventure with them.
Don wasn’t a cruise guy but he and Allie had some grand sea adventures. They celebrated their 25th anniversary on a cruise to Alaska. Next was the Queen Mary II across the Atlantic. And Don’s very last international trip was their cruise in the Baltic Sea with a landing in St. Petersburg, where Don had traveled 40 years prior on the Siberian Railroad.
Birding was one of Don’s only life-long hobbies. He grew up with Northern cardinals and he loved birds but he wasn’t much into life-lists. However, his not-list grew substantially when he and Allie joined up with three other couples on a birding trip to Mexico. On this trip, Don saw a Painted bunting for the first time but more importantly he made new friends, which really was his greatest hobby, and one that he practiced until his final days.
In 2016 Don was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that he successfully smacked into remission through an autologous stem-cell transplant. But it took a lot out of him, and his adventures became less ambitious: birding at Sauvie Island, driving Allie and Jim and Becky to have breakfast at Multnomah falls, walking to Fleur de Lis to meet old friends and make new ones.
In the fall of 2019, Don was diagnosed with dementia, later determined likely to be Alzheimer’s. A year after his diagnosis and after he stopped driving (which he hated!), he couldn’t remember the name of his favorite coffee shop while on a trip to Seaside with Allie and Alex. He might have been embarrassed but he took it in stride, “You know, my office!” If you know Don, especially if you are one of the Fleur de Lis regulars, you know just how right he was.
Don’s wit and ability to read people helped shield him from others knowing the full extent of his dementia. Even if you visited him during his last few months at Emerson House, where he received loving care, his eyes would brighten and he would crack jokes, albeit non-sensical, and you would walk away thinking, maybe he did recognize me.
Don’s thinking and communication became more basic as the disease progressed, but he still expressed his love for Allie, Alex, and Erin, for music, and his love of making people laugh. “I’m happy as long as I can make people laugh.” Which he did, for nearly 81 years.
Beautiful memories and summary of Don’s life. I’m so sorry about the timing, but glad that you were able to discover some amazing things in India and Nepal before you had to return.
Beautiful tribute to your dad and his life well lived. I absolutely believe God orchestrated the Ganges dolphin for you at the time of his passing, as well as the feeling of the “universe hug.”
Wow. What a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it.
Alex, a loving legacy, beautifully shared. Our heartfelt condolences to you, your mom and family. Sending love and safe travel wishes to you and Erin.
Allie and Alex and Erin,
Thanks for generously and thoughtfully sharing this sweet tribute to your universally loved mate, dad, dad-in-law, and life-long friend of mine. I am no doubt one of many who wish to have spent more time enjoying that friendship with Don when we all thought time was abundant. But I will always cherish the memories of the A team, then the B team, then more than a decade trying in vain to block his jump shot, and more. I am marking my calendar for 4/16 at fleur de Lis.
Alex – when my mom passed i had the same experience. I was in a dorm room in Carbondale Il but the profound sadness followed by that ethereal hug; its real. I have no doubt you we’re exactly where your dad wanted you to be.
Alex, what a beautiful remembrance and loving tribute to Don’s life. I’ll see you at the memorial service, if not before.
Ah, Alex. I’ve known your dear dad my whole life but I never knew about many of the adventures you describe. This was an absolute joy to read, though hard with tears streaming down my face. I loved him very much. As I do you and Allie. RIP my lifelong friend, Don Brown. You made me laugh. You made me happy. You made me feel safe and seen. You lived a beautiful, brave, inspiring life and I am so grateful you were a big part of mine.
You have done for your father only what your love for him could do – truly immortalize him. I was thoroughly impressed and captured by his life’s story.
Your presentation made it clear that you deeply loved him as he loved you.
Thank you for sharing, Tom Madden
Thank you for this Alex. You have beautifully, and thoroughly, memorialized your father and my longtime friend. I met Don in the late 1960’s when he was living at the YMCA in NYC. We remained close pals for about 10 years until the day my wife and I saw you and your parents depart Brooklyn for Portland in 1978. We worked together at the NYC Board of Education (he got me my job) and Don introduced me to my wife. We attended your parents wedding and they attended ours just before leaving for Portland. Although we lost touch for a few decades, we did reconnect about ten years ago, for which I am grateful. Too many memories to list here (and some I wouldn’t tell you about anyway!), but none will be forgotten. My condolences to you and Allie.
Thank you for posting this beautiful tribute. I have fond memories of your dad, especially the time we spent in Rome together. My heartfelt condolences to you, Erin, and your sweet mom.
My deepest condolences, Alex and Erin. Multiple myeloma also took my dad a couple of years ago. But it sounds like Don (my dad’s name too!) had a wonderful life, a loving family, and lots of friends. Hard to ask for more.
What a wonderful tribute to your Dad, Mom and a loving, interactive family life. Even though your dad is gone the memories will sustain you all. So sorry for this loss to all of you.
Beautiful Alex. So enjoyed learning more about your dad. It’s otherworldly and archetypal losing a parent. My heart goes out to you and Erin. I know he is with you and that you’ll miss him always.
You are a good son, and I’m certain he was proud of who you have become as a person. My memories of your dad were that he always had a real genuine smile and kindness about him. After reading this it makes a lot of sense. My heart breaks for you and your family.
So touched by this beautiful remembrance. Heartfelt condolences to you, Alex, and Erin and Allie..and it sounds like the many people he touched thru his life.
Don was a special man -full of heart and one of my friends when I worked at Providence. Honest and caring. I hope to attend the service on the 16th
We met Don and Allie late in life and have fond memories hanging out with them. Don was a regular at Portland Audubon morning bird walks every Spring and Paul Sullivan’s week-end bird trips. Don could always be counted on to bring large chocolate Hershey bars to pass out when we found a good bird. Or crack a joke. Or playfully argue over whether a bird was a Yellow Warbler or a Wilson’s. We will miss him for his ear for bird song and for his heart for people.