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A Child of God Called Home Too Soon

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Dale Brown died in the fall of 2014 after a bicycle crash.

Most readers of Perspectives will know very little about Dale Brown, my friend and colleague whose life is the focus of a clutch of pieces in this issue of the magazine.

Dale was my friend for 27 years; readers who didn’t know him may need some small bit of introduction in order to get a clearer sense of who this man was. What follows is my attempt to fill in a few of those gaps so that Dale’s work at Calvin College and at King University can be seen in a slightly larger and more complex context.

Dale Brown as a Son of the South

Willard Dale Brown was born in Anderson, Indiana, in 1949, but he was a son of the South, with deep family ties to Tennessee. He was born into a family who were part of the great northern migration after World War II, when thousands of Southern families moved north to get good, high-paying jobs in factories. Dale’s father, Willard, worked in a General Motors plant in Indiana for many years, but the home place for the Brown family was always and still is Cookeville, Tennessee.

Dale was ready with a saying and a song for almost every occasion.

Dale’s awareness of himself as a Southerner was keen – he was very sensitive to careless or strategic comments about Southerners and to almost every reference to hillbillies, and he was also among the first people I knew to celebrate the “You might be a redneck” genre of jokes and comedy made famous in the early 1990s. He hated stereotypes about people living back in the hills and hollers, and he regularly told wonderful stories about his own boyhood and about his relatives back home (an Uncle Napoleon was particularly notable). He never lost his admiration for the folk wisdom passed along in family stories. For Dale, his family’s move from Calvin College to King University, from Grand Rapids to Bristol, was a return to his home country, only a few hours’ drive from Cookeville, where his parents had moved after retirement. Dale’s earthly remains will no doubt be interred in the family plot in Turkeytown Cemetery, a 35-minute drive from Cookeville, in a cemetery that is the resting place for generations of Browns before him.

Dale Brown’s Other Careers

I know very little about Dale as a police chaplain, as a youth worker in a Saint Louis housing project or as a high school teacher. But many of us at Calvin heard many stories about his work in the early 70s in a Christian musical group, The Horizons. Dale and his wife, then Gayle Wyne, sang in this 10-person group for approximately three years immediately after college, touring the country and performing gospel concerts wherever the group was invited. Pictures of the group show Dale and Gayle in their early 20s; some small part of the glory days of the 70s may also be evident.

Dale Brown as Husband and Father

Dale had the good sense to marry that fellow singer a few years later, and they began a family soon after. When Dale accepted a position in the English Department at Calvin in 1987, he and Gayle moved a few houses down the street from our home, and we had the great pleasure of being neighbors for those 20 years. The Browns lived in the biggest home on the block; Dale borrowed ladders and returned them; he needed my battery charger so often that he eventually bought me a new one. We watched Anne and Jonathan grow up alongside our children. We had the pleasure of watching the entire family across the street prosper and thrive – Dale in his growing interest in making Calvin a center for gatherings that eventually became the Festival of Faith and Writing; Gayle in her work for Eerdmans Publishing in the children’s books division. Anne and Jonathan seemed to become young adults almost overnight, young adults who have now started families of their own.

Dale Brown the Athlete

Dale had been a star basketball player in high school, as well as a very good college player. When he came to teach with us at Calvin, we made the big mistake of inviting him to play racquetball in the departmental rotation. Within months, Dale mastered the game, and he eventually left our low-level competition to play in a variety of racquetball clubs in the area. At the height of his racquetball years, Dale played more than a thousand games a year. He won all but a very small number of them until he began to teach Jonathan the game.

Dale Brown the Character

Dale was ready with a saying and a song for almost every occasion. Other friends and Dale’s students could, with very little effort, compile a comprehensive list of his favorite sayings (“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a meta for?”; “… a rimless cypher”; “He beat me like the neighbor’s dog, like a rented mule”) and of his favorite songs, ranging from gospel to folk to classic rock and roll to hymns. He enjoyed the use of the double modal “might could,” and he regularly had a joke to tell or a family story from the near or distant past.

Willard Dale Brown was complex and, like most of us, complicated. He was a loyal son, a loving husband, a nurturing father, a good neighbor, a professor, a colleague and a friend. He was a child of God called home too soon.


James Vanden Bosch teaches English at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.