After studying botany at New England College, Elmer Brown started E.C. Brown's Nursery with his wife in Thetford, Vt.. While his son has taken over a good part of the business, Brown is proud of the variety of perennials, shrubs, and trees he has brought to the area. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
By Warren Johnston
Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, November 14, 2015
(Published in print: Saturday, November 14, 2015)
There is little question that war changes all who take part in it, but for 88-year-old Elmer Brown, it was missing out on World War II that forged his perspective and pushed him toward giving back to his community.
Brown, who enlisted in the Marines in June 1945, just a couple of months after he turned 18, was ready to go to war. He had been trained, inoculated to go overseas and likely would have been in the first wave of Allied troops in the planned October invasion of Japan, but he “lucked out.”
Just as his unit was set to embark from the Quantico Marine Base in Virginia, President Harry Truman droppedatomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in August 1945. Japan announced plans to surrender six days later.
“I feel very fortunate that I was born just at that time (April 9, 1927), because if we had invaded Japan, I probably wouldn’t be here now. They claim there would have been more than 1 million casualities — Japanese and more Americans and Allies,” Brown said last week, sitting in the chair where he likes to spend most of his day reading, mostly history.
“I never agreed with Harry Truman’s politics, but I think he made the right choice by bringing the war to an end by dropping the atomic bomb. I hope they never have to do it again.”
Brown has no qualms about missing the war and feels his good luck was a quirk of fate that he should pay back, a providential sparing for a purpose.
After college and some early work experience, Brown and his wife, the Rev. Bertha Brown, settled in Thetford Center. They were married in 1964 after his first wife, Marjorie, died. Bertha had been Marjorie Parker’s best friend.
Not long after Browns, with their twin sons in tow, bought the place along Route 113 in Thetford Center to start E.C. Brown’s Nursery in 1967, he found himself immersed in the community and volunteering to help. He was one of 24 founding members of the Thetford FAST Squad (said to be the first rescue squad so-named in the country, the First Aid Squad of Thetford), a member and leader of the fire department and a trustee for Thetford Academy, and he was giving his time and donations to numerous other charitable and church organizations.
While building his fledgling plant and landscaping business and helping raise their sons, Brown helped run the Ford Sayre ski program, trucking kids, 100 pairs of skis and snowboards on eight Fridays a year up to the Dartmouth Skiway.
“My wife says I don’t know how to say ‘no.’ But the truth is that any of the town services that I did, somebody had to do them. One of the greatest reasons that I’m so civic-minded is that I lucked out on World War II. I escaped with my life, and I’m very grateful for that and grateful that I can help my neighbor. ”
As committed as he is to public service, he’s equally so to barbershop singing. He’s served four terms as president of the North Country Chordsmen, an organization and hobby that he credits with his longevity, relatively good health and friendships from throughout the world.
Brown traces his love of singing to his first solo at the age of 3 in the Methodist ch urch in Lyndonville, Vt., his hometown. He doesn’t remember the song, or even being there. It’s a story his mother told, but he’s adoptedenough to retell and put in his self-published biography, From Shank’s Mares to Quad Chairs , a title that refers to w alking and skiing.
“I was a baby. I don’t remember anything about it,” he said with a characteristic smile and twinkle in his eye.
He’s still singing, although his shank’s mares need a little help from a walker and from a cane. Brown inherited the cane from his father-in-law, who was 104 when he died, and calls it his “incentive cane,” i ncentive for a longer life.
“Singing is in my blood and that keeps me going. Without a doubt I have great lung capacity. As long as you keep singing and have good health and attitude about living, you’ll be all right.
“I’m 88 years old, and just two weeks ago, I competed in a barbershop contest. I was in the front row leaning on my four-wheeled rocker, and we won the most improved trophy. Came out in seventh place for all of New England and New York. I sing in a quartet called One Mode of Expression.
“All over the world people know certain songs, so you’ll be some place like Ireland, and they’ll draft you to sing with them. You get to know a lot people that way.”
Although he grew up during the Great Depression in Lyndonville, Brown had loving parents — his father was a foreman with the Canadian Pacific Railroad — and a pretty good childhood, trapping, fishing, mowing lawns, shoveling snow and doing odd jobs for 25 cents an hour to contribute to the family’s income. He hauled logs out of the woods one summer, working 10-hour days for a dollar a day.
But what he remembers is mostly the fun times — ice fishing, skiing and being outdoors.
“On Saturday evenings in the summer, we would walk over to the town green to enjoy the concerts played by the town band,” Brown says in his book.
Brown, his father and mother, his sister and two brothers would all attend. “Our big treat was a bag of popcorn smothered in real succulent and tasty dairy butter. I can still taste it now.”
At Lyndon Institute, where he attended school, he excelled at sports, despite being short. He played football, ran track and skied on the school’s championship teams.
“I skied until I was 81,” Brown said last week. “I quit because I had vertigo and could have taken some bad spills. But I didn’t stop taking the kids’ skis up to the Skiway on Fridays. I took the skis up there for 40 years.”
Brown has lived his life alcohol free, a position he took as a teenager after seeing fathers of classmates squander their pay on liquor.
“I haven’t needed one (a drink). I get intoxicated enough swooping down Bear Den trail on Burke Mountain or singing Lida Rose with my barbershop quartet,” he writes in the book.
On at least one occasion, his alcohol-free stance has been the source of a good laugh.
“When I was courting Marjorie Parker (his first wife), her family took us all to dinner at the Co ol idge (Hotel). They ordered shrimp cocktails to start. When they offered me one, I said ‘No thanks. I don’t drink.’ Glen Parker, Marjorie’s father, had a hearty laugh at me. I can hear him now,” Brown writes.
Not drinking also worked in his favor with his former boss Helmer Johnson, who owned Johnson’s Nursery in Fairfield, Conn.
“I worked there for 10 years. He was Helmer Johnson, and I’m Elmer, and we hit it off. I’m a lifelong teetotaler, and he liked his booze pretty much. I’m pretty small. He was 6-foot-4, and he was the captain of the Swedish soccer team before he came over here. He was a powerful man,” Brown said last week.
“He liked to take me out fishing in the Long Island Sound, and he’d have maybe one beer then. He used to take us to the Shea Stadium for the ballgames, and he’d have more than one beer. When we’d get ready to go home, he’d hand me the keys. That was before the days of designated drivers.
“We were the exact opposite as far as that philosophy was concerned, but we got along pretty well.”
When the Browns wanted to start the nursery, they chose the Thetford Center property after spotting an ad in the Valley News.
“ My wife and I saw a picture of it and liked the looks of the house. We came up here, and he was asking $43,000 for it. We offered him $18,000, and overnight he accepted our bid. It’s hard to believe that we got this property for $18,000 in 1967.
The red brick house, which dates to the mid-1800s, sits near the road with a sweeping hill behind. The business now occupies most of the sloping lower portion of the property that stretches for more than 130 acres over the hill.
“We liked the looks of the house in the picture, and the house has an Underground Railroad history. In Lyme, there was doctor. In the daylight, he had a wagon with covered sides, like the Amish wagons, and he’d bring the slaves over here in the daytime. They’d hide them in the basement, and there was a tunnel that ran out under the summer kitchen that used to be attached to the house. The tunnel got dangerous before we bought it, and the former owner filled it in.
Brown had earned a degree in botany in 1950 from New England College in Henniker, N.H., and had worked in nurseries in Iowa, Vermont and 10 years with Johnson in Connecticut. They were ready to try it on their own.
“When we first started out, we’d tell people what we were going to do, and they thought that we were just plain crazy to think we could make a living at starting a nursery up here. But it’s been quite a success.”
The key was keeping to their budget and putting in long hours , Brown said.
“My wife and I started out with just a pickup truck, but then I got one of those hand-operated derricks on it. I never bought more than I could pay for. I never went into hock. When I saw that we could afford another piece of equipment, then we’d buy it.
“We put our two sons, twins, through college at UVM. We never took a vacation until we got them out of high school. When we put them through college, we had to use our own finances.”
Their son Kurt and his wife live in Maryland, and they both work for the National Security Agency. Their other son, Kevin, lives in Thetford and is running the nursery and landscaping business.
A couple of years ago, Brown was up on the top part of the nursery property, bending over, cutting little pine trees. He stood up and fell backward against another tree. Although the fall hurt, he didn’t think much about it.
“I had a few bruises, but I thought I was OK.”
That was November. He got worse and by February, members of the FAST squad that he helped start were carrying him down the stairs from his bedroom and transporting him to Dartmouth-Hitchcock. He had suffered a bruised kidney in the fall. Now, it was infected.
After an operation, things got worse, the infection spread. He had to make numerous return trips to the hospital .
“Up until two years ago, 60-year-olds couldn’t keep up with me.” But the bouts with infection took a toll on his balance and curtailed his mobility. He still walks a mile six days a week.
However, Brown is not giving up, and he’s still keeping his mind sharp, reading, doing crossword puzzles, singing and enjoying life. He keeps up with world and local news: “There’s no doubt in my mind that they will defeat ISIS.” And he’s optimistic about next year’s Red Sox season: “I think they’re about to break out.”
And he’s sticking to his top rule for a happy life.
“The number one word in my vocabulary is fun. I have fun everyday. You can’t let hard times dwell on you too much. You have to put a little fun in that, otherwise, you’d be brooding.
“I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done. I still am enjoying it. I’m still enjoying every day I see things we planted 30 or 40 years ago that have grown and gotten big. It’s fun to see that.
“When I lost my balance, I said that I’m not going to quit. When you’re 88, you have two choices. You can give up and vegetate, or you can keep going.”
He’s going to keep singing, too. It’s his elixir for staying fit and keeping a positive attitude.
“I have always tried to respect other people,” Brown writes in his book. “Life has rewarded me, and I have peace of mind.
“It’s a good life.”