Decades of public service

Published 7:59 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Decades of public service

Isle of Wight County lost one of its most tireless public servants this week. James Banks Brown Jr. — Jim to many and Jimmie his closest friends and family— died in the Riverside Convalescent Center on Jan. 17.

Jim was out of touch with much of the community in recent months due to his declining health, but for those of us who knew him, his service to his home county spanned decades and rose so far above the “average” that it can only be viewed with awe.

Jim came from good stock. The Browns hailed from Carrollton and were always a hard working family that believed education led to opportunity. When he graduated from the Isle of Wight Training School in the late 1950s, his parents encouraged him to advance his education, and he enrolled in Howard University where he earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering.

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His degree and his determination led him to a successful career as a naval architect, designing propulsion systems for the Navy’s small craft. He was honored by members of his profession and the government numerous times for his work.

But it was through Jim’s service to Isle of Wight County that most of us came to know and admire him. He was a member of the School Board for more than three decades, and during those years he never lost sight of his personal commitment to education and his desire to see young people have the opportunities that had been open to him.

He continued his public service as a member of the Board of Supervisors for two terms.

Jim was no shrinking violet. He had opinions, and was perfectly willing to express them. For years, he was an outspoken advocate of a central county high school, believing that with the county’s small school-age population, a central school would be better positioned to offer the advanced learning courses that he believed were critical to providing a leg up to students preparing for college in an increasingly technological world.

His vision of a central high school never won sufficient support to become a reality, but it elevated the debate over public education in Isle of Wight County and played a great role in ensuring a long, slow, but steady improvement in our school system.

He also supported Paul D. Camp Community College’s role in educating local young people and he believed strongly in a well-run vocational training program to assist students whose career paths might be better served by solid job training than college.

But the trait that most endeared Jim to those he worked with him, I believe, was his color blindness. He served on the School Board during some of the more tense years following full integration of the system, and I never once heard him express views that could be construed in any way as racist. He cared about children — all children. No matter where they lived or what color skin they had, Jim Brown wanted what was best for all Isle of Wight youngsters and, even though some of his views were never held by a working majority, he persisted as long as he was able in working for what he sincerely thought would make a better community.

In 1996, he became the first black person ever to be recognized by the Isle of Wight Ruritan and Rotary Clubs as Citizen of the Year. That presentation was a very public embrace of this community. It spoke volumes about the progress that the people of Isle of Wight have made thanks to leaders like Jim Brown.

Jim Brown had a huge, and positive, impact on public education in Isle of Wight County, and he will be missed.