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Holton F. ‘Brownie’ Brown, longtime Baltimore Sun editorial assistant and fire buff, dies

Holton F. "Brownie" Brown was a longtime volunteer at the Fire Museum of Maryland.
Holton F. "Brownie" Brown was a longtime volunteer at the Fire Museum of Maryland. (handout)

Holton F. “Brownie” Brown, a longtime Baltimore Sun editorial assistant, Air Force veteran and stalwart volunteer at the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville, was found dead Saturday in his home in Govans. He was 79.

When he failed to attend a June 10 staff meeting at the museum and didn’t arrive Saturday for his regular volunteer shift, museum officials became alarmed.

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John Eddinger, the museum’s duty officer, drove to Mr. Brown’s home, and when he didn’t answer the door, went to the home of Brenda Paylor, his next-door neighbor and close friend of 30 years. Together they decided to call city police, who entered and found Mr. Brown unresponsive.

“It was an unattended death,” said a son, Geoffrey Brown of Greenville, South Carolina, who said his family was waiting to see the death certificate, but suspected it was a heart attack.

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Holton Franklin Brown, son of Charles H. Brown, a safety engineer at the old Hendler Creamery Co., and his wife, Helen Gengler Brown, a Social Security Administration clerical worker, was born in Baltimore and raised on Witherspoon Road in Govans.

A 1959 graduate of City College, Mr. Brown attended the University of Maryland, College Park and served from 1960 to 1964 in Greenland as an Air Force medic. He later remained active with the Civil Air Patrol.

In 1967, Mr. Brown began his four-decade career as an editorial assistant in the city room of The Baltimore Sun at its old building on North Calvert Street, and in the pantheon of newsroom characters he quickly took his rightful place.

“Brownie was one of those people who made up the backbone of the newsroom,” said Howard Libit, a former city editor who is now the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council. “There were many characters in the newsroom, and he was one of them.”

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He worked the “lobster shift” of 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., and his duties included answering the phone, taking dictation from reporters who called in, and opening and sorting city desk mail.

“He also called police and fire departments across Maryland in search of newsworthy events that he compiled in a colorful overnight memo that gave a jump start for staffers arriving on morning shifts,” David Michael Ettlin, longtime night editor, wrote in an email.

“Although his typing ability was suspect,” Mr. Ettlin wrote, “he managed to take dictation over the phone from reporters covering news events across the nation and overseas — and tried his best to dodge calls from one particularly temperamental Sun correspondent who, to his relief, eventually moved to The New York Times.”

Mr. Brown’s nemesis was the late Adam Clymer, who worked for The Times from 1977 to 2003, Mr. Ettlin said.

Mr. Brown was the first encounter the public had when they called the newspaper, and he, gifted with a mellifluous voice, answered their calls. If they thought the guy on the other end of the line was dressed in a three-piece blue serge suit and wearing horn-rimmed glasses, nothing could be further from reality.

Mr. Brown’s somewhat disheveled working attire consisted of a worn Baltimore Fire Department cap, which he never removed, trousers and a tieless shirt that was often untucked in the back. From his belt were suspended a ring containing numerous keys, plus police and fire department pagers.

From the time he was a child, he was enamored of the fire department and firefighters, fueled by his father, who was also a fire buff and a founder of Baltimore’s Box 414 Association, which operates a coffee wagon in support of firefighters at multi-alarm fires in the city.

“We were both fire buffs,” said his brother, Bill Pacer of Atlanta. “Holton was fascinated with Box 414 and followed along with our father, and it was a natural evolution that he collected fire trucks, fire memorabilia, model airplanes and HO-gauge trains. It was a treasure trove and a hoarder’s nightmare.”

Another of Mr. Brown’s newsroom duties was interpreting the strikes that came from a wall-mounted brass city fire department bell that represented every fire alarm in the city.

“The bell rang out a code of, say, two rings, followed by three, followed by five. This mean box number 235,” wrote G. Jefferson Price III, longtime reporter and foreign editor, in a 2004 article in The Sun.

“A clerk at the desk, usually a fire department buff named Holton F. Brown, would look in the book to see if the box was at an important place. If the bell rang the same sequence again, that meant the fire had gone to two alarms, and so forth,” Mr. Price wrote.

“If you wanted to know how many units and firefighters were dispatched to a multi-alarm blaze, Brownie was the go-to authority,” Mr. Ettlin wrote. “In an unfortunate blow to newsroom ambience, the fire department removed the equipment years ago.”

On a summer afternoon in 2001, it was Mr. Brown who alerted the staff that there was a fire in CSX’s Howard Street tunnel that paralyzed East Coast railroad traffic and downtown Baltimore.

“ ‘I think we have a problem,’ he said in an understatement, adding that thick smoke had been reported coming from both ends of the tunnel,” Mr. Ettlin recalled.

“Brownie brought an energy and enthusiasm to the newsroom that was infectious, and when things happened, he couldn’t help but be swept up into it,” Mr. Libit said. “He lived through the transformation of the newsroom into the digital age and he made the transition with the rest of us.”

With the killing of the “lobster shift,” Mr. Brown took on daylight hours. Each afternoon at 5 p.m., he monitored local newscasts and prepared a memo for editors to be checked at news meetings.

“He wanted to make sure that we hadn’t missed anything that was substantial to the paper of record, plus he knew what we were working on,” Mr. Libit said.

When Mr. Brown was attacked in January 2008 while waiting for a bus at 5 a.m. near his home on Cameron Road in Govans, he reported to work in the newsroom with his coat splashed with blood. It was only after the intervention of an editor that he agreed to go to the hospital and be examined.

“He was a faithful servant to this newspaper, full of life and stories, and willing to share them with anybody and everybody,” Sun police reporter Peter Hermann wrote at the time of the incident.

Mr. Brown retired in 2008 and turned his attention to his volunteer work at the Fire Museum, where he had been an active member since the 1970s, and with the Baltimore & Chesapeake Steamboat Co., which was restoring the 1906 steam tug Baltimore, and the Baltimore City Fire Museum.

“He was an interpreter, a docent and a member of our board. He was always reliable and did everything he could to help us. He was a detail man,” said Stephen G. Heaver Jr., director and curator of the Fire Museum of Maryland. “He loved talking to people and sharing stories as only Brownie could share a Brownie story.”

Mr. Heaver added: “He had a long relationship with us and was a keen observer of people. He’d step back, watch the situation before deciding to jump in and out in his two cents.”

His Cameron Road neighbor, Ms. Paylor, recalled a gentle and thoughtful neighbor who cared about her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who called him “Mr. Brownie.”

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“He was a wonderful person, neighbor and friend, and we looked out for each other,” Ms. Paylor said. “He was a beautiful person who would take me for medical procedures and kept me laughing with his jokes. My whole family loved Mr. Brown, who was just an excellent person.”

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Services are private.

In addition to his son and brother, Mr. Brown is survived by another son, Kenneth Holton of Naples, Florida; a daughter, Martina Clara of Jupiter, Florida; and two grandchildren. A marriage to Anita Smith ended in divorce.

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