I first made the acquaintance of Richmond Brown in January 1991. It was during my interview for the job I've held for the past 25 years at the University of South Alabama. At that time, Rich occupied that uniquely vulnerable yet exhilarating position: a one-year faculty appointment prior to finishing his Ph.D. dissertation. He was 29, I was 28.
In my memory of that initial meeting there seems only to be a smile. I can't actually see the face with my mind's eye, but I know he had to be smiling because that's what he always did when he met you for the first time or saw you again. He and I would not begin to grow into professional and personal friends until the following autumn, when I moved to Mobile and his one-year appointment was extended for a second year. As he continued in that ostensibly temporary position, our department searched for a permanent historian of Latin America, Rich's specialty, and it wasn't surprising that he prevailed in the search.
|Richmond Brown, to the far left. Others in this photo, from left to right: Michael Monheit, Mel McKiven, Aaron Fogleman, and me (Photo taken in the fall of 1992 by Michael Thomason)|
We shared the distinction of having been born about a year apart in Alabama, and having grown up in the state (or mostly, in my case). We both went to college in Alabama before leaving for graduate school out of state. We both had one-year jobs before South Alabama at big state schools (he at Kansas, me at Maryland). And we were both Atlanta Braves and Alabama football fans (Rich rooted for Alabama from conviction, me from duty to my undergraduate alma mater and my family's long-time preference).
I knew that over the years and decades I was unable to give as much to our friendship as he did. I wasn't ungrateful, just very quickly exhausted by prolonged social interaction. It's a classic case of introversion, when it's properly defined as quick energy depletion in social settings rather than as shyness. Thus he was a much better friend to me than I ever was to him. That goes into my Regret column.
As a native of Mobile, Rich had a varied set of social contacts from the university and his ongoing high school friendships. As an introvert, I confined mine to the university -- to those I likely already knew wouldn't mind if I left early or didn't say yes to every social invitation. There would be long periods when Rich and I did little to nothing together. Yet he invited me to an evening of drinking and celebrating when his Ph.D. dissertation was finished just under the deadline in 1993, for instance. And I helped him move a few times as well, as he went from apartment to house to apartment to house. He was the one I asked to go with me as I test drove my first new car, to see if he could spot any dealbreaking problems. And we played together on a history department softball team for two years, after which I left (because I couldn't play without sliding, and I always hurt myself when I slid). He continued on for a couple more years as the team gained victories and renown on the intramural fields; and he slid no matter the consequences.
We were involved in some contretemps at the departmental, college, and university level that would have made us friends for life if nothing else had. Confronting a commonly perceived threat is a great way to bond, and we were fortunate that the feelings of solidarity endured long after the difficulties had subsided. Rich was a great help to me as I served as Faculty Senate chair for two years, and he as a senator. I thought he might be the one to immediately follow me as chair, but it took a couple of years. While on the senate he played a key role in making sure everyone understood exactly what bringing football to campus would mean and cost, and in representing the faculty before an administration that saw faculty as pesky and entitled rather than as the heart of the university.
By the late 1990s, our personal paths were diverging. I had decided to get married, and Rich was seriously involved at the same time, too. He would marry in 2002 himself, which entailed many weekends on the road to and from his wife's residence in New Orleans. By 2006 they'd found a way to be in the same city and each have a good job, but it meant that they would move to Gainesville, Florida. After 15 years, we would no longer be both colleagues and friends, but only distant friends. Rich came back to his native city many times, and I'm sorry to say that I wasn't always available to see him each time or able to offer him a bed. After I got divorced, I had very little room to offer houseguests, although after I did eventually buy another house he would stay with me several times.
|Me, Rich, and Mike Monheit, October 2014. Photo by Martha Jane Brazy.|
Rich's encounters with cancer began before he left Mobile. He was treated for three different sorts between 2004 and 2016. What amazed me and everyone else was the lack of bitterness, self-pity, or embarrassment with which he approached his treatments. He let us all know where he stood whenever there was a change in his status, which lately meant only when there was not-so-good news. During my last trip to see him, just one week ago, he was already in a hospice. He was being given the sorts of medications that hospices are good at, ones that reduce both pain and anxiety. He offered a few quick snorts of laughter at one or another reminiscence, but very little strong emotion. If he realized that we were saying goodbye for the final time as I prepared to return to Mobile, he didn't let on. I couldn't tell as I reached over his bed to hug him and tell him I loved him whether he was affected in any way. I was sniffling and eager to leave his room even though it meant never seeing him again, because I was not keeping it together. A visitor arrived just at that moment, making my exit a lot easier as Rich, ever the good host, introduced us and I could plausibly leave them to speak in private. His last words to me were "safe travels."
Rich is universally loved and admired. A world without him in it makes no sense, and it's going to be a long time before the heaviness of his death is lifted from me and those who knew him well. This is a measure of how well he lived, and of what an example he set for us all.