Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

July 13, 2013

Four careers and an astronaut

Princeton man shares life stories before move to Ohio

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — After more than three decades of being a Mountaineer and Princeton businessman and Rotarian, Jack Brown is heading back to Ohio and life as a Buckeye.

Now 81, Brown sat down in his home and recalled how circumstances and multiple careers brought him to a place he grew to love, the city of Princeton. Recently retired, he is now planning a move to Ohio that will bring him closer to his family. He said he had many good friends in Princeton, but he wanted to be with his family, too.

He had many memories to share, so he started off with how he helped organize a welcome home celebration for the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon.

“I was in Wapakoneta, Ohio, the home of Neil Armstrong. I knew Neil. I probably knew his mom and dad better because they belonged to the same country club we did,” Brown recalled. “That was an exciting time during those days. It was one of the more exciting things that happened to me in my lifetime, his homecoming after he had been on the moon.”

Brown was a committee chairman with the town’s chamber of commerce when Armstrong came home after going to the moon. He soon found himself dealing with a lot of reporters eager to cover the story.

“My portion of it was when he talked to all the high school kids in the area, and he wouldn’t allow any media in the stadium and we had a heck of a time. ‘I’m so-and-so from the AP!...I’m from the New York Times!” Brown said. “I had to say sorry folks, he doesn’t want any media in there. He just wants to talk to the kids. And he gave them a real nice talk.”

Naturally, the chamber organized a celebration for the hometown hero.

“We had a homecoming parade and, my gosh, we had bands from all over the area. He graduated from Perdue University with an engineering degree. There was the Ohio State Band there, there was the Perdue University band, the Indiana band, the university band. For a little town like Wapakoneta, which is not much bigger than Princeton, we had about as much of a downtown area, this was a lot,” he said.

Spectators and the media found space wherever it could be found.

“The television people, newspaper people, and photographers were renting the roofs of all the buildings downtown where the parade route was, and you couldn’t squeeze in down on the sidewalk. There were thousands of people down there,” Brown stated.

At the time of Armstrong’s homecoming, Brown was a sales manager with Pepsi Cola; the job would eventually take him to Princeton when his employer purchased the local Pepsi plant.

“I actually worked for RKO bottlers, which was the licensed Pepsi bottler,” he explained. “In those days each town its own licensed Coke bottler, Dr. Pepper bottler, so RKO owned 10 bottling the plants throughout Ohio and Indiana. The reason I’m here is because they’re the ones who bought out Mr. Hunnicutt.”

Out of the blue, Brown’s bosses asked him a question.

“They came to me in my office one day and they said, ‘Have you ever been to West Virginia?’ I drove through it a couple of times. And they said, ‘Learn to like it. You’re going there!’ So I came here in 1982 and then I managed Mr. Hunnicutt’s operations here. We had this plant here, we had one in Pineville, we had one in Alderson and we had one in Flatwood.”

Brown worked for the bottling chain until 1988 until it was purchased by another company. The new owners had “enough vice presidents” so they gave him “an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he recalled with a laugh.

Fate offered the Brown family a chance to stay in Princeton. Brown visited Chicago to visit his injured brother-in-law and encountered his friend Dewey Russell of Princeton. And Russell had an idea; he knew his friend took dry-cleaning to Service Cleaners on Mercer Street.

“He said ‘Jack, are you planning on coming back to Princeton?’ And I said, ‘Yea, all of my furniture is in storage over there.’”

Russell knew Service Cleaners’ owner wanted to sell his business. He recommended buying it, and Brown had lunch with the owner and ended up buying a dry-cleaning business. Brown sold it to an employee when he retired in January.

“I took over Oct. 1, 1990, so that’s been...” he did some calculations in his head. “Twenty-there years. I didn’t work hard. I had a very, very good crew. My wife handled the accounting part of it. Her office is in one of the back bedrooms. I just worked at the counter, you know, bought the supplies and such, and it’s been very good to me. Didn’t make a fortune, but it’s been good to me.”

Before getting into the soda bottling business and the dry-cleaning business, Brown worked for J.C. Penney department stores for more than 10 years. He started in a part-time job, but he needed a full time job when he and his wife, Shirley, got married.

“Through the years, I’ve had...let’s see, one, two, three, four jobs in my life. I met my wife at Southeast Missouri State University. It was Southeast Missouri Teachers College in those days. My wife and I, she was a college student there and I was a college student there, and we ran away one weekend and got married. We came back and one of us had to go to work.”

“At that time, she was a very good student and made all the good grades and I struggled to stay in college,” Brown said. “I was working part-time at J.C Penney, and I talked to the store manager, Al Smith was his name, that I had to get a full-time job and he said, ‘Well, you don’t have to have a college degree to start with us. I’ll put you to work.’”

For the 1960s, the pay was not bad.

“I went to work for $25 a week. That was good money. I knew what the assistant manager made, $200 a month, and I thought man, if I ever get to that level, I’ll have it made!”

Shirley earned her teaching credentials and accepted a position at a one-room schoolhouse. Brown later became an assistant store manager at a J.C. Penney in Illinois. He was later sent to St. Louis, Missouri and other locations: manager trainees were rotated to different styles of stores. Later, Brown was offered a chance to work for the W.T. Grant stores; he was given a $15 a week raise. He had been with J.C. Penney for 10 years.

Brown said he became tired of working in big stores in big cities, so he asked for a chance to manage a store “in a small town with a main street.” An opportunity opened immediately in Wapakoneta, Ohio. Brown quickly traveled there to see his new store.

“I flew to Dayton, rented a car, and got there late at night,” he said. Restless, he found the store, got out of his car, and cupped his hands over his face so he could peer through the store’s front window. At that moment, the chief of police drove by. “You looking for anything, buddy?” he said. “Yes, I am,” Brown answered. “What you doing down here so late at night?” the chief asked. “Well, I’m the new manager,” Brown said, and asked the chief where he could get a hamburger.

The chief took Brown to Minor Dings, an old-fashioned bar serving “the best, greasiest cheeseburger ever.”

But, eventually, fate led Brown to Princeton. He now plans to move to St. Mary’s, Ohio so he can be closer to his family. Brown said he had many good friends in Princeton, but being near family is important. His wife, Shirley passed away in December 2012. One of his daughters, after an accidental fall at Pipestem State Park. Examples of Dina’s work can be seen through the Brown home.

Brown said he had many good memories of Princeton to take with him when he leaves at the end of July. Princeton is “right on the edge” of seeing good things happen, and local people have the leadership, enthusiasm, and “movers and shakers” needed to move the city ahead.

“The people here are just fantastic,” he said enthusiastically. “I have never had a problem with anyone at any time.”

During his years in the city, Brown has been very active with the Princeton-Mercer County Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Princeton. He has been named a Paul Harris Fellow, one of Rotary’s highest honors, and recently received the first annual Joe Marsh Legacy of Service Award from the Rotary Club of Princeton. The award is named after the late Dr. Joe Marsh, a president of Concord University.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com