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helen s brownMythbuster: Helen S. Brown

Community activist and volunteer

Interview date: 1999

There's a stateliness about Helen S. Brown that is apparent from the moment you meet her. Poised, eloquent, patient, she has a wisdom that reaches beyond that of your average person. While recounting stories and anecdotes, small tidbits of life suggestions are so subtly interwoven in the details that one could easily miss the jewels this Oberlin, Ohio native is willing to share with you.

Perhaps best recognized by those who do not personally know her as the woman for whom a Cleveland area senior center is named, Mrs. Brown spent a lifetime as mother, wife, community volunteer, advocate and social worker. She ended her working career with a 14-year commitment as Director of the Helen S. Brown Senior Center, named in her honor for her dedication to improving the lives of the community's older people. While "retired" she serves on the Board of Trustees for the Council on Older Persons, the Long-term Care Ombudsman Program, Eliza Bryant Center, the Helen S. Brown Senior Center and A.M. McGregor Home. She is also an Advisory Board member for the Cuyahoga County Senior Advisory Council and the Community Services of Benjamin Rose. While modest in describing her accomplishments, Mrs. Brown conveys the value of reaching out to others and finding ways to keep people connected to improve their quality of life.

What's your daily routine?
I get up at 4:30 a.m. Get dressed. Take a grapefruit and orange to the office. Stop at a local deli for breakfast and get into the office at about 6:30 or 7 a.m. I work and do my schtick on the air at 10:30 with Carl Reese. I usually head home about 2:00 p.m. Sometimes I go out to dinner, see movies or play cards with friends.

What is your attitude about getting older?
Aging is a part of life. A person grows and develops. I never really thought about, "Oh, I'm going to get old." I suppose years ago I thought about it, but then, I thought that anyone over 30 was old! As I grew older myself I kept thinking that old age is always at least 10 years away from me. That thought just progressed through my 40s, 50s, and 60s.

I remember years ago when my son was quite small and I was working, sometimes in the evening I would be tired. Once I told my son, "I'm tired. Please don't do anything to disturb mommy. I'm old and nervous." So another day he was home playing with his friends and I overheard him say to them, "Now, you've got to keep quiet, guys. My mommy is old and nervous." It hit me at that point, that I was telling him I'm "old and nervous," but I was really just using it as an expression, which he didn't understand.

Having him at 37 years old made me an older mother. He just kept me younger [than my chronological age]. I started associating with other moms who happened to be younger, going to PTA meetings and that sort of thing. It just didn't occur to me that I was getting older. Now, I tell my son that I am older, but he does not think of me as old. According to statistics, however, I am old! (laughs).

To you, what does successful aging mean? What keeps you involved?
Mentally, I still want to do. I still want to think. I still want to do a lot of things in life. I wake up each morning with the idea of doing something, even if I don't have any meetings that day. I can do some reading, some writing. I can listen to music. It just never occurred to me to curl up and give in. I don't see any reason for doing that. Perhaps I might have had a good example. My mother lived to be 76 1/2. I definitely never thought of her as an old woman. She was active and was sick for years, but each time she bounced back she kept right on going. I've got that in me.

It depends on one's own thoughts, how you view yourself and how they view others around them. When the city first asked me to take the job directing the [Helen S. Brown] senior center, I thought, "I don't know anything about seniors. Who are they? What are they?" Then I did some quick arithmetic and realized that I was going to be a senior in a short period of time, too. The seniors that I worked with there were so vivacious and interested in doing, being, going and participating in lots of things. Again, I never thought of them as being old.

What would you suggest to people who want to age successfully?
Age is a mental thing. I see a lot of "young" people who are old. Some people, when they get older, they see their friends and relatives pass on and they put themselves in a cocoon. They don't let themselves get involved with other people. They always see the dark side of life. Whereas if you take the attitude that life "can't get me down," it makes a complete difference. A person can be ill and still be involved. We had several seniors with health issues at the senior center. One, in particular, started coming to programs in a wheelchair. Then she graduated to a walker and ended up with a cane. We got her dancing! She left her cane to the side of the room and was dancing. I saw a lot of miracles happen at that senior center through people being together and having a good attitude.

My husband passed on two years ago. At first it was very hard to do anything because we were married for 43 years. We did so many things together. It was always just wonderful. My husband was behind me in everything I did. Then I thought, he would want me to continue doing the things I did before he got sick. So I went back to my community activities. I can't close the door on everything else because he isn't here to share it with me.

What is it like for you to have a senior center named for you?
I don't think you can explain that. It's awesome. I can remember something my mother used to say to me years ago: "fools named like fools' faces are always seen in public places." And that is what came into my mind when I got the news. Then I started rethinking what happened and I know how proud she would have been about what was done. My dad would have been proud too.

So, it's still overwhelming. I was extremely flattered, surprised. I think about "why me?" I was doing my job [as director] on a daily basis the way I thought it should be done. That was all I was trying to accomplish. I learned a long time ago to do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay. I enjoyed the job. I did not expect to get the accolades that I did. It's always interesting when people come up to me, though, and say, "oh, so you're the Helen Brown whose name is on the building." So what can I say in that situation? At the same time, there are so many people who are responsible for what that center is today and I share its accomplishments with them.

Helen Spotts Brown died July 10, 2002 at the age of 84. She left an incredible legacy in the form of her poetry, leadership and an East Cleveland senior center named for her.

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