At a recent gathering of alumni rowers, I was asked this question: “How come Brownie was thrown into Lake Quinsigamond?” An odd question, with a profound answer, as it reveals an important aspect of a man, now gone. No one of us can know the entire character of another man. But by sharing what each of us knows, a portrait of the man may emerge. Here is what I know.
The “Brownie” referred to is James C. Brown. Why a nickname suggestive of an elfish imp would have been given to a bear of a man like Brownie, I never understood. There was nothing elfin about him—he was oversized, outspoken and opinionated, a larger than life personality. He had a quick wit with which he delivered criticism with sledgehammer bluntness. I was often the recipient of his educative onslaughts, because whenever I made a fool of myself in his presence, thankfully, he corrected me. Brownie also dispensed homespun philosophy, and I learned something from each of our conversations and benefited from his cajoling, constructive criticism and commentaries on life.
Although better known as a football and baseball player, Brownie rowed for Amherst in our junior and senior years. When Brownie joined the Crew, he brought a fresh spirit to the program. Instantly, he was one of the central figures on the team—a leader on and off the water—full of fun but fuller still of competitive drive. In every conversation I have had with our rowing teammates in the last thirty years, his name has come up (“Remember when Brownie …”). He is inextricably intertwined with our memories of rowing at Amherst.
During our senior year, Brownie was one of the main gears in the varsity boat’s “engine room,” as we were undefeated in dual races for a second straight year. They say it is not the triumph but the struggle that gives meaning to our accomplishments. If so, I am grateful to have shared struggles and triumphs with Brownie, who found great satisfaction in the intensity of rowing competition. His indomitable spirit drove us all to improve.
And that is why he was thrown into Lake Quinsigamond. It is a rowing tradition to toss the coxswain of the winning boat into the water. In the spring of 1975, however, after an Amherst boat had won the New England Regatta championship race, Brownie organized the other rowers to throw the entire winning crew in with their coxswain. That accomplished, the other rowers believed that Brownie, our spiritual leader, should share in the watery celebration, and in he went. It was only right. The victory celebration would not have been complete without him.
Brownie passed away on December 5, 2006, after a long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife, Lisa, and teenage children, Elizabeth and Jack. Pondering his death, each of us probably thinks Brownie’s life was too short. It was, but perhaps we are emphasizing the wrong measure. Even if Brownie had more time, I, for one, could not have asked for better times than those we shared already as classmates, teammates and friends. Brownie lived his short life well, and because of that, he will live long in our memories.
—Craig C. Reilly ’76