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Tom W. Brown: In memoriam

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POSTED: February 6, 2007 5:05 a.m.
Georgia lost a legend last weekend. Tom Watson Brown, a rich man and a soft touch for politicians of nearly all stripes, died at age 73 of complications from diabetes.
His funeral was held at Hickory Hill estate in Thomson, where his great-grandfather, fiery national Populist leader Tom Watson, lived and worked a century ago.
Brown’s services were to be based on the 1922 final rites given to the then-adored Sen. Tom Watson on the lawn of Hickory Hill.
Relatively few Georgians know of Tom Watson Brown (or of his namesake) and his good works. TWB never sought public office, but he had a major impact on politics. He claimed to detest Republicans, but he gave generously to GOP causes and invariably supported Republican presidential candidates.
At the state and local level, Brown helped dozens of Democrats. He counted liberals and moderates among his best friends. Former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler was one of his pals, as was uber-conservative ex-Congressman Bob Barr.
“I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Republican Party. I will never forgive Republicans for what they did in 1861 (the year the Civil War began),” he once told a GOP candidate who made the mistake of referring to Brown as “my fellow Republican.”
In his last years, Brown resided in a vast 19th-century mansion, Ivy Grove, just off the Marietta City Square, where he kept a 15,000-volume library, much of which was devoted to Civil War history. He regarded the South’s defeat at Gettysburg as a singularly tragic event in the history of the Western world. Some people scoffed at TWB as a throwback and a dinosaur. Others proclaimed him a conservative champion of the Old South. Tad, Brown’s 40-year-old son, described his father as a “Jeffersonian Democrat.”
None of those labels quite fit. Educated at Harvard and Princeton, he possessed an extraordinarily complex intellect. Although Brown was one of my closest friends, hardly a day passed without Brown engaging me in heated but never angry debate on current events. I regarded my talks with TWB as the equivalent of a vigorous physical workout.
Brown’s fortune came mostly from ownership of Spartan Communications, a chain of broadcast stations in medium-sized markets, which he inherited from his father, Walter “Red” Brown, a well-known Washington radio journalist whose 1930s’ nickname came from his liberal leanings.
In 2000 Brown sold Spartan to Media General, a larger communications company. He also owned a 6 percent share of the Atlanta Falcons, which he sold to the team’s present owner, Arthur Blank. In the 1970s Brown served as an attorney instrumental in bringing MARTA to metro Atlanta, an achievement he later bemoaned as spoiling “civilized places like Lenox Square. I cannot help but feel like the Robert Oppenheimer of public transportation,” he said.
Though Brown’s wealth may have ranked in the billion-dollar range, his name seldom appeared on any list of rich and influential people. That suited him fine. He shunned the limelight and despised the kind of hangers-on and yes-men who often gather around the famously affluent.
He gave extraordinary sums to Mercer University, UGA and several other units of the University System of Georgia. He was the driving force behind Mercer University Press, one of the most prolific academic publishers in the nation. His Watson-Brown Foundation, administered by son Tad, has awarded scores of university scholarships to needy students. TWB subsidized the Atlanta Press Club’s televised election debates.
In recent months, TWB stirred controversy in Athens with his restoration of the home of T. R. R. Cobb, a foremost legal authority of antebellum Georgia. Brown’s decision to paint the house in its original pink caused neighborhood consternation. When Brown was told of the “pink” protests, he chuckled, “Tell ‘em to call it ‘salmon’ — but it’s still pink.”  
Tragedy was a frequent grim visitor in Brown’s life. Two sons and two wives preceded him in death.
Yet he was a consummate optimist and activist, continuing to keep a full schedule of engagements including speeches even as his health failed. He insisted last year on going on a prolonged sea voyage to Central America and through the Panama Canal.
He once advised a would-be public speaker: “Tell ‘em what you think and leave no stone unturned. The greatest compliment ever handed me followed a speech I made to an Augusta Rotary Club. ‘Well, Tom,’ my host said, ‘I think you managed to offend everybody here at least once.’”
Reading back over this column, I realize that this is a too-brief recitation of a few highlights from the full life and exciting times of a wonderful and great man  - and my cherished friend and confidant. I shall miss him as long as I live.
You can reach Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: shipp1@bellsouth.net
 

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