Folks waited happily in a line 20-people deep just to say hello to him Saturday afternoon at First United Methodist Church in downtown Brunswick.
A couple hundred other well-wishers mingled about the spacious reception hall swapping treasured anecdotes about the man, who sat at a place of honor among them. The dashing gentleman even had some groupies on hand – several ladies sitting beside him who jokingly dubbed themselves his “many girlfriends.”
What was all the fuss about? Ok, so it was Bill Brown’s 100th birthday party. But, heck, it is not like the guy is going to drop off the local radar just because he is now a centenarian.
Brown still meets most Fridays with his regular lunch crew at Maggie Mae’s in Brunswick. He remains chairman of the Brunswick Pilot Commission, and he continues to serve on the board of directors at Epworth By The Sea. And he still faithfully attends meetings of the Kiwanis Club of Brunswick, where his zingers and one-liners have been a staple for generations.
“He’s a renaissance man,” said Martin McCormack, who serves with Brown on the Brunswick Pilot Commission, which oversees the port’s Harbor Pilots. “He’s got land, sea and air covered. His background and knowledge of the maritime issues here in Brunswick in invaluable.”
Said Joel Willis, Epworth’s President and CEO: “Bill is still very much a vital part of our program. He is chairman emeritus, and we don’t just give those out every day.”
For the record, Brown’s big 1-0-0 is actually today, Dec. 3. The party was held in advance on Saturday just to accommodate the many folks who wanted to show their love and respect. Folks like Ray and Carol Dumas, Massachusetts transplants to the Golden Isles who have known Brown since he took them under his wing when they moved here in the 1970s.
“We love the guy,” said Ray Dumas. “We have lunch with him every Friday at Maggie Mae’s. I don’t think you can express it; the guy is just a legend.”
“He came like an angel from heaven when we were in a tight spot, and we have been friends ever since,” added Carol Dumas. “He is so motivating to me.”
Accolades such as these wafted through room, spoken by the community’s movers and shakers, as well as regular Joes and Janes – friends all. He was born in 1918 on this day in the historic Dart house, which overlooked the marsh at 4 Glynn Avenue from 1876 to 2017. To put that in perspective, World War I had ended just a couple of weeks earlier with Germany’s surrender on Nov. 11.
Locally, Brown rode the ferry Emmeline to St. Simons Island as a little lad, before there was a causeway linking the island to the mainland. Brown even rode in his dad’s automobile across the causeway on the very first day it opened, July 11, 1924.
Whatever his memory of those far distant days, Brown showed a gift for encyclopedic recall with the folks who turned out to bid him happy birthday. One of those “girlfriends” at his side this day marveled that Brown wanted to know more about her childhood on Cumberland Island. She had met him just once, briefly, several months ago, she said.
Brunswick Mayor Cornell Harvey, a Glynn Academy graduate, met Brown after returning home to Brunswick from a 27-year career in the Air Force. “He’s done a lot of great things for the community,” Harvey said. “And I just love the fact that he’s still so involved. He really is an institution in our city.”
When World War II came around, Brown was medically ineligible for military service due to a cleft pallet. But he rolled up his sleeves and joined thousands of other men and women who turned out Liberty Ships and other boats for the war effort at the shipyards on the Brunswick River. Brown went into real estate after the war, following in the footsteps of his father. (William Hadley Brown of Camden County married Ethel Grey Dart, and they raised Bill and his four youngers siblings at 4 Glynn Avenue.)
Brown married Margret Ann Johnson in 1946. The two settled into a home in Brunswick, where they raised their two children, William III and Marian. Brown and his wife would eventually go into business together, forming a successful commercial rental enterprise. All told, Brown spent some 60 years in the real estate business in Brunswick. The state has issued hundreds of thousands of real estate broker’s licenses over the years. Brown’s broker’s license is No. 248.
Brown prospered, but the community as a whole also has profited from his real estate acumen. Richard Cowen recalled the sweetheart of a deal Brown arranged nearly a decade ago to find a home for St. Mark’s Episcopal Church’s charity thrift shop, Hello Goodbye. Money from the cheap lease Brown offered went toward a basement bargain purchase price on the former KFC building at 1523 U.S. Highway 17, where Hello Goodbuy has since generated more than $1 million to help the community’s poor and marginalized, Cowen said.
“He was a wheeler-dealer in this transaction, but the winner was St. Mark’s church and through St. Mark’s the community as a whole,” said Cowen, the church’s senior warden at the time. “I won’t say he gave it away, but he did not overcharge.”
Members of Brown’s extended family, which includes three grandsons and two great-granddaughters, were sprinkled among the crowd at Saturday’s celebration. Bob Brown, a spry 97, displayed his lifelong knack for playing the straight-man to his jokester big brother. He deftly deflected a request to speak publicly on the occasion.
“I don’t have anything to day,” Bob deadpanned to those gathered. “I’m the one who has had to listen to Bill talk all my life.”
But seriously, family members were touched by the outpouring of love expressed for their genial patriarch.
“How do you put it into perspective — he’s just dad to me,” said daughter Marian. “But it’s also amazing to me, he’s just a remarkable human being. And I love to see the reverence that people show for him.”
People like Brunswick resident Lorene Reed. Reed heads Golden Isles Live!, a group whose local concert series Brown still attends faithfully.
“He is such a warm spirit, who gives back so much to the community,” Reed said. “He is always here supporting us. Bill really is an inspiration. I love him. I love him.”
The feeling is mutual, to Reed and to all the others who turned out to wish Brown a happy 100th.
“This is incredible, it was truly an honor,” Brown said. “I do appreciate it. They were all very kind to come out on such a rainy day. I am honored.”
Of course, we just knew Brown would not let this moment pass without a smile and a chuckle.
“And it was a wonderful experience to have all these pretty ladies want to hug me,” Brown quipped, a mischievous boy’s twinkle in those centenarian eyes.