Purchase | NCP Home | Perrini Home | Reviews

Standing in the Sun

by Nancy Brown Perrini


Chapter I: Coming Home

cover"The final test of a leader is that he leaves behind him in other men the conviction and the will to carry on."
     - Walter Lippmann

Two-foot snow drifts glistened in the brilliant morning sun as mourners entered Muskingum College's chapel on a frigid winter day. My eyes, blurred from the light reflected off the snow, barely saw the gaze of a thousand joyless faces as the college basketball team carried the cherrywood coffin down the lengthy flagstone aisle. The young men, usually dressed in crimson and black French shirts and athletic shorts, looked strangely out of place in their ties and dark suits. Except for their shuffling foot steps, the silence in the chapel was riveting.

Dressed in mourning black and gripping the hands of my son, Bill, and stepson David, I slowly followed the casket with its spray of red roses. It was the longest walk of my life, and my internal body was trembling, as if my nervous system had gone haywire. What happened? I thought. What went wrong?

Miraculously, Jack had rebounded, albeit briefly, from a thirty-day journey in a St. Louis hospital. I had made arrangements for us to fly to Tucson, where Jack could recuperate in the warm Arizona sun. Clearly, God had other plans.

Now, our family, the Muskingum College community, and friends from afar were gathered to bury John Anthony Brown: my husband, a dad and stepfather, a college president, mentor, and friend. Was I dreaming, or was this reality? Shocked by the turn of events, I felt like I was having an out-of-body-experience. Surely this was someone else's nightmare, I thought.

My wobbly legs somehow managed to carry me past the sea of faces to the front of the chapel. The family members filing into the first two pews included Jack's daughter, Barbara, from Washington, D.C., where she lived with her husband and two sons. Jack's eldest son, Anthony, with deep blue eyes and thick auburn hair came next. Anthony was married and a hospital administrator with the U.S. Navy. Philip, the middle son, lived in San Diego with his wife, Becky, and Jack's grandchildren, Callie and Tyler. I could hardly look at Philip without crying. Of the three boys, he most resembled his dad. Next was twenty-five-year-old David, a Muskingum student, and his stunning, blond, blue-eyed wife, Katie. David and Katie lived in college rental property only a short distance from the president's house.

Sitting to my right was Bill, who, at six-feet-three, towered over us all, and then, there was me with my dark hair and brown eyes, looking thin and gaunt-I had lost at least ten pounds. In the pew immediately behind us sat my parents. My father, Linwood Alvis, with his bald head, trim figure, and long stride, was approaching his seventy-second birthday. My mother, Esther Elizabeth Neblett Alvis, was a tall vivacious woman with blue-gray eyes and neatly coiffed brown hair, sprinkled with gray.

From the earliest I can remember, Mother was a beautiful woman. Her strength and courage in the face of disaster was an important role model for me. My parents also grieved for my loss. Jack had brought a new perspective and excitement to their world. They would miss him, too.

On that heartbreaking morning, the entire family sat in the uncomfortable pews, looking like stoic robots. We were each lost and alone with our thoughts-missing Jack. The Service of Thanksgiving for the Life of John Anthony Brown was about to begin.

The magnificent pipe organ resonated with Bach's Toccata, and Fugue in D Minor, the composer's genius surely quivering in every heart present. Bach was one of Jack's favorite composers, and the fugue that I had requested was his favorite organ composition.

The organist for the service was our good friend, Nora Abrams. Petite, with warm dancing eyes, Nora's nimble fingers could make a keyboard sing. The powerful majestic sounds reverberated from the organ, rose to the rafters, and vibrated in every crevice and corner of the chapel. The music racked my emotions and I was unable to contain my anger-the tears flowed like an unending river.

With my watery eyes glued to the casket, I visualized Jack rising up to say, "Here am I, send me." He had used those words from Isaiah in his first speech to the college community. My thoughts were lost in my own memories when, suddenly, the music came to an abrupt conclusion. You could have heard a pin drop on the cold stone floor. The stillness was haunting until Edwin Ahrens began to speak.

As I clutched my wet handkerchief, I recalled the tiny piece of paper with the ragged edge containing Jack's message. "Ed Ahrens, Clint Keyes, Brown Chapel." Jack had scribbled those names on a slip of paper and left it on his bedside table for me to find later. I surmised that he knew it was time for him to go. Would I have wanted him to tell me face-to-face? No, probably not, but after his death, I was grateful for the ragged bit of paper with its instructions.

Although Clint Keyes, who had married us, was unable to participate in the funeral service, our good friend, Harold Smithers, Episcopal priest from Augusta, Maine, read the scripture lessons and gave the benediction.

Splendid in its gothic architecture, cathedral ceiling, and stained glass windows, Brown Chapel was named for a former professor. In jest, Jack had always called it "me chapel." It was a fitting tribute for a place filled with recollections of our relationship with the campus community: weekly chapel services, musical/theatrical performances, and distinguished speakers.

There were many notable lecturers during our tenure at Muskingum College, but the day of the funeral brought forth endearing memories of John Glenn-United States Senator, astronaut, and graduate and trustee of Muskingum College.

I recalled when John was at our home for a luncheon, prior to giving a commencement address. The evening before, it had rained into the early morning hours; therefore, Jack and I did not anticipate that our guests would wander out-of-doors. Thus, the lawn furniture had not been checked for standing water. The rain had stopped, the sun was shining and, unfortunately, several of our guests did decide to venture outside. Senator Glenn, dressed in a navy blue pin-striped suit, surprisingly found himself sitting in a puddle of water. I was totally embarrassed. Luckily, by the time the buffet luncheon was over, John's trousers had dried.

Somewhere in the congregation that sad morning were John and his wife, Annie.

Although my body was present, the details of the service escape me. As I gripped Bill and David's hands, I slumped in my seat. I felt as if my brain was numb from the shock of it all. Years later, I am grateful to have a copy of Ed Ahren's moving eulogy. Ed was a faculty member in the religion department at Muskingum. To this day, his words convey special meaning:

...Because of Jack Brown's faith in God, he knew who he was. When a man knows who he is, he is able to make difficult decisions with boldness and grace. He combined gentleness with strength, graciousness with decisiveness, and his identity emerged from this axial trust at the center of his life.

These powerful words of faith and grace have been a guiding light in many troublesome voyages of my life. On that long ago day, the ride to the cemetery was the most formidable journey I could have imagined.

As I followed the pallbearers who carried Jack's body from the warmth of the chapel into the bitter cold air, my eyes were so saturated with tears that I could hardly see the hundreds of students and friends who lined the walkway. Three Catholic sisters in their black habits and white headdresses briefly caressed my arm as I passed. Jack had served on the board of their hospital, and had also been their patient. They loved him, as did all the others in my path. As the family departed in the black limousine, we passed the administration building that housed Jack's office and the church where we worshiped on Sundays. It was impossible for me to imagine that his bright spirit, infectious laughter, and penetrating words would no longer be heard in those corridors. Leaving the college behind, the caravan of cars headed west toward the cemetery. Here and there, local residents gaped at the slow-moving procession.

The graveyard was nestled in New Concord's residential community on the western perimeter. It was tiny compared to today's massive cemeteries and memorial parks. The entrance was flanked by two rugged stone pillars that framed a rolling terrain of grasses, family plots, and tombstones.

In the spring and summer, fresh flowers abound, birds sing, and surrounding trees blossom, but on that icy winter day, the place was barren except for the stone markers rising like monoliths.

As we approached the burial site, the wheels of the car made a crunching sound on the snow-covered gravel. A blue tent had been erected, and chairs for the family were in place. I exited the limousine and, as I did, a cold wind whipped around my legs and I was grateful for my knee-high black boots.

Appalled to think of Jack imprisoned in the frozen, barren earth, I wanted to turn and run the other way. For me, his soul had taken flight the morning we parted. I was certain that his spirit was hovering over the burial ground. Jack was no doubt thinking, "Thank God, I'm free, the mystery is over."

Months later, while going through all of his papers, on the back of a 1968 calendar I found these prophetic words written in Jack's handwriting: "Following death there is the tomb, and on the tomb-Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, I'm free at last. Death is the great equalizer; in death we are all equal."

As I gazed through my teardrops at the fresh roses that would freeze when the snow covered casket was lowered into the earth, I remember thinking that he was free, like an angel. My body ached with pain to think of him without me, and me without him. In five short years, we had been blessed with a love that many don't have in a lifetime. As I sat transfixed, shivering from the cold and the wind, I stared into the black hole where Jack's body would be lowered after the brief service.

The shock of seeing his body at the funeral home had permanently engraved itself on my brain. It was as if he were a department store mannequin. His once salt-and-pepper gray hair had turned almost white, and his skin was pasty, like a ghost. The once-strong, angular facial features were diminished by thin hollow cheeks. Had it not been for the dimple in his chin and his demonstrative hands with their long fingers, the body lying before me could have been anyone. I'd leaned forward to kiss his lips one last time, and gently stroke his hands, which were stiff and cold. The vital oxygen and water had left his veins; he was not there. Jack had joked the day we left for the hospital, "This will be my uniform." And so, I would forever visualize his dress-a blue oxford-cloth shirt and oriental silk tie, a navy wool blazer, and gray flannel slacks.