Neighborhood Historian, Civic Leader Don Brown Dead at 79

One of the neighborhood's great historians and civic pioneers died last week after a life spent in celebration of his adopted home.

Donald Brown, 79, whose battle against cancer did not deter him from celebrating one final Dorchester Day in style this summer, succumbed at his Meetinghouse Hill home on Thursday.

Brown will be rememberd by friends and family as a proud veteran, a gentle and caring soul who devoted the last decades of his life to promoting and protecting the neighborhood.

Born and raised in Brockton, he settled on Puritan Avenue after returning from service in the Pacific theater of World War II to marry Ruth (Ward) Brown of Dorchester.

"It took me a while to get used to the big city," Don said in an interview with the Reporter three years ago.

Both Don and Ruth have served as board members on the Dorchester Historical Society, Don serving as president of the group for four years in the 1990s. He was also an original founder of the Bowdoin Street Health Center and what is now known as the Meetinghouse HillI Civic Association, and spent many years organizing Fourth of July festivites at Ronan Park.

Until his death, he served as publicity director for the Dorchester Day Celebrations Committee, dutifully recording the many annual events with his trusty point-and-shoot camera.

"I think it should all be recorded," Brown said. "Every day is a new day in history. It is so important to chronicle it."

For Don, photography was a lifelong hobby dating back to his childhood, when his father bought him a box camera. Immediately after high school, he decided to take a job at the Copley Square library. Don then continued his shutter bug service in the U.S. Air Corps during the Second World War.

In action in the Pacific theatre under Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Don survived three plane crashes while taking aerial photographs of enemy targets, and was one of the first U.S. servicemen to reach the Japanese mainland near the war's end. He was on hand to document the aftermath of Hiroshima and was onboard the USS Missouri for Japan's surrender. His other claim to fame in wartime was helping a young actor named Charlton Heston promote a show at his cadet base during basic training.

When he returned home in 1946, he and Ruth would often see footage Don had shot in action running during news reels at Boston movie theatres. He went on to a 35 year career in the postal service, working at the South Postal annex in Boston, where he was active in union organizing.

Don married Ruth Ward, who grew up in St. Peter's parish, in January 1948 during one of the worst blizzards of the century. Suitably, their honeymoon was spent snow shoeing and skiing in New Hampshire. The Browns were married 54 years and raised six children on Puritan Ave. They were blessed with 18 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Through the years, the Browns were involved in the Dorchester House, serving on the committee to build a new health center in the sixties. It was through their many civic activities that the Browns came to know another memorable caretaker of Dorchester history, First Parish Church pastor Rev. James Allen.

Don Brown called Allen "the most fascinating man I ever met."

Brown remained an active parishioner at St. Peter's parish through the years. He and Tom Connolly formed the Meetinghouse Hill Improvement Association in 1968.

The Browns' interest in Dorchester history was spawned from Ruth's father, who was a policeman in the Uphams Corner area and memorized many of the gravestones in the Dorchester North Burial Ground.

During the preparation for bicentennial celebrations in 1976, the Browns became more and more involved in the historical society. When Don left the board of Bowdoin Street Health Center, which he helped start at the building that once housed the Meetinghouse Hill Bank on Bowdoin Street, he became a full fledged member of the society.

In his final years, Brown exhibited an enthusiasm for the neighborhood's future that rivaled his passion for the past.

"I can see how it is working," Don said. "It will take many more years to be the perfect place for an urban place to be. But, I don't think structurally this town will go down hill any more."

Close friend Fred MacDonald drove Don Brown and his wife Ruth up Dot Ave in a convertible in last June's Dorchester Day Parade.

"He was so civic minded, so selfless," MacDonald recalls. "He was always working on behalf of other people."

MacDonald said Don was "in his glory" during his last parade.

"That was his whole life," says MacDonald.

Donald Brown was buried in New Calvary Cemetery on Wednesday after a funeral Mass at Saint Peter's Church.