Ken’s memorial service
When I think of Ken, I think of some wonderful ambiguities, a person with a sharp critical mind and yet a real reluctance to pass judgment; a person who would talk about the world all night with friends, but sit silently in class for endless minutes waiting for students to formulate responses to questions; a person who was as comfortable marching for a cause as he was reading for class.
Ken, who could play the Marine’s Hymn on the pump organ, would call himself a conservative on the one hand and, not so oddly, a progressive on the other. The notion of government based on consent of the governed gives all the more meaning to withholding one’s consent on occasion. Ken was a dutiful taxpayer (well, dutiful in filing an extension every year!), but when the taxes he paid funded immoral activities of the US military, Ken resisted paying taxes for war. Once an IRS agent came to retrieve Ken’s unpaid taxes. Naturally, Viona drew the man into a personal conversation about his own troubled child, so, by the end of the long visit, he left without collecting, saying he couldn’t take money from such compassionate people. Ken participated in other acts of civil disobedience or moral “obedience.” Among other occasions, he was arrested at least twice at the School of the Americas in Georgia, and with Cliff Kindy in Michigan for trespassing on a military installation. When the judge asked Cliff Kindy why he went under the fence, Cliff said he was following Jesus. When the judge asked Ken why he went under the fence, he said he was just trying to follow Cliff Kindy.
Frugal and generous
On one hand Ken was downright frugal, especially with family. He fed the poor dog canned corn, piled eight people in a hotel room at Annual Conference, and badgered a poor cashier about having to pay sales tax on a full dollar when the charge for the item was 99 cents. For Christmas one year, Ken and Viona gave Benjamin McElwee, who was 15 at the time, a check for $25. Six months later, when Benjamin turned 16 and got his license, he asked the Browns how much they wanted for the heap of a car sitting at Brown’s curb, reserved for short trips around town. Suspecting that Ken would try to make a return on his Christmas gift, Viona intervened and cried “$25!” Ken was happy enough. He didn’t have to pay another $25 to have the salvage yard haul the car away.
But Ken was also generous. His oldest son, Chris, was at the house by himself one afternoon when a man appeared at the door with a story about a group of illegal Salvadorans traveling secretly to refuge in Canada when their van broke down nearby. They needed hundreds of dollars to repair the van and keep moving. Chris, certain that Ken would not hesitate to help political refugees, found Ken’s check book and wrote out a check for $600 or $700. The story was a complete scam. As sorry as he was to lose money to unscrupulous people, Ken could not very well blame Chris for erring on the side of generosity. A group of friends decided to spread the pain over fifteen or twenty people and quickly recouped the generous gift.
Impetuous and patient
Ken was impetuous. In his hurry to get across the street in Chicago once, he ignored bright yellow caution tape and walked headlong into fresh cement that oozed up over the tops of his ankle-high boots.
When I lived across the street from Ken and Viona, I saw Ken and Chris working on a little brown Mazda that had an orange juice can connecting the tail pipe to the muffler—another one of Ken’s inventions. Ken was barking at Chris about getting the wrong parts for the tune up they were about to perform. He stomped around and said, “Why didn’t you get points? We can’t do the tune up without points.” Ever so gently, Chris said, “Ken, this car doesn’t use points.” Then Ken swept across the street to help me change the oil in my car. He slipped underneath the car to let the oil pan drain. Then he poured in four quarts of oil, which began to trickle down the driveway toward the street since Ken hadn’t remember to replace the oil plug. Irked with himself, he wandered back across the street to rake leaves. I walked across to see if I could help. Ken was in the back yard sweeping the leaves with big strokes that lifted them aloft and toward the street. In the front yard Viona was using a gap-toothed metal garden rake over every inch of the yard. As I walked up, she straightened up and said, “The earth just loves to be scratched!”
Ken was patient, too. He let us sit at his dining room table until 3:00 in the morning and seemed to be interested in all our nascent thinking and dreaming. He put up with students who borrowed things and never returned them, friends who used his two-stroke Lawn Boy and put straight gas in it, and strangers who swiped bikes and car stereos. Ken never locked things up or stopped lending his things. In 1978, two carloads of Manchester students made a trip to Colorado for a demonstration and teach in. On the way back, we picked up another Brethren straggler from Kansas named Ken Yohn. None of us knew him, but Ken Yohn seemed to feel right at home with his new traveling companions. In fact he blathered on for miles and miles about his mastery of philosophy at the young age of 18. When at last he paused to take a breath, he turned to Ken Brown and said, “So what do you teach?” I don’t remember that Ken Brown ever confessed.
Ken was a cynical optimist, if there is such a thing. He thought merchants in traditional markets in developing countries were always on the make. He never fell for the hard luck stories of panhandlers (so he was right about that), and he thought the church was slow to take up the radical gospel of Jesus. But Ken was eternally optimistic about peace, which persists from Socrates’ critique of the state through King’s arc that bends toward justice and countless times between. In a sermon he preached on Independence Day this year at the Manchester Church of the Brethren, Ken closed by asking us to exchange a legacy of American triumphalism for a legacy of peace, “On the Fourth of July let us tell our children about the power of love instead of the love of power.” And so we will.