It's a pretty good bet that, as the grandson of John Elward Brown, folks assumed that John Brown III would attend the university his grandfather founded when it came time for him to go to college.
In 1919, John Brown Sr. opened John Brown University (JBU) on 300 acres of his own land in Siloam Springs as a way for economically disadvantaged students to pursue an affordable higher education that emphasized the practice and study of Christianity. By the time his grandson graduated from high school in 1967, the school was flourishing and well-respected under the leadership of his son, John Brown Jr., who had assumed the presidency in 1948. John Brown III, however, defied expectations and went off to Hendrix College instead.
"I just didn't think I was ready to be 'the president's son' at John Brown University," says Brown, who is being honored this month at the Brandon Burlsworth Foundation's Legends Dinner. "I could go to Hendrix and be on my own. There were some great people there, and I had a good, good experience."
It wasn't the first indication that Brown might not hew that closely to his family's legacy. In high school, his interest in politics led him to spend a summer as a U.S. Senate page in 1964. When he returned to Siloam Springs -- and JBU -- for his sophomore year of college, he wrote features and news stories for the city's biweekly paper, The Interstate News.
Still, Brown says the common assumption was that his employment at JBU was inevitable. And, yes, he admits, it rankled a bit.
"At homecoming, some of the people -- and they were being kind, in their way -- they would pat me on the head (the 'cheek pinchers' were the ones I really tried to avoid) and say, 'Well, little Johnny, I guess we know what you're going to do when you grow up.' And I kind of resisted that notion. I thought, 'God's spoken to everybody but me about what I'm going to do when I grow up.' But I did come to feel that it was God's providence. What I realized was that, 'Here is this tremendous opportunity and place that I know and love: I'll go to be a servant, and not just because my name is John Brown.'"
"He told me when we were dating that he never intended to work at JBU, but he quickly realized it was a job, a calling, actually, that would give him the opportunity to help potentially thousands of young people," notes wife Stephania.
Perhaps Brown's original concern was that he would not have an opportunity to carve out a path of his own. But, at the age of 70, surely he can lay that worry to rest. Following his distinguished career at JBU as its third president from 1979 to 1993, he became the first executive director of the Windgate Foundation -- the third-largest charitable trust in Arkansas. As an Arkansas state senator from 1995 to 2002, the chairman of the Northwest Arkansas Council's Education Task Force and a current member of both the AETN Commission and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education Board, his hard work, policymaking and advisory capacity have touched all corners of the state.
TIME FOR GROWTH
Brown's legacy, ultimately, is one entirely of his own making.
"I've had good travels and been a lot of places, but the hub of the wheel has always been, not only Siloam Springs, but this area, right here," says Brown, twirling his finger to indicate the neighborhood surrounding the Alumni Welcome Center, where he sits for an interview. The Center is the old residence of the JBU president, and Brown grew up here and moved back when he accepted the job -- so it's a good bet that he is familiar with every creak of the floorboards. The house has been smartly rehabbed and is decorated tastefully in muted colors, but Brown can still point out the sitting room where the family would gather for family photos. Down the hallway, where JBU employees now work, were the bedrooms of Brown and his sisters. "I remember, back in the years that I was growing up, we rode our bicycles around the campus, and there were old wooden buildings and very limited facilities. I remember the outdoor pool, down in the valley, and the old wood gymnasium. I spent my summer there -- it was like going to summer camp every year, right down there in the valley.
"In fact, [as] I used to tell the freshmen at orientation, I was actually born on the JBU campus, in an area that is now the parking lot behind the men's dormitory -- fortunately, in those days, it was an infirmary," he says.
Brown describes himself as a curious student, one who was increasingly engaged in the roiling political climate of the 1960s. He declared a major of political science while he was at Hendrix, though he changed it to business upon his return to JBU his sophomore year. Brown is not shy about why he came back after only one year away. He had met his future wife, Stephania, when both were in high school, and they were seriously dating when Brown moved away to Conway. Stephania was a year younger and was graduating from high school.
"She was going to the University of Arkansas, and, I thought, 'Well, I'd better get back up to Northwest Arkansas, or she may find a new boyfriend,'" he says with a chuckle. "So I came back and proposed, and we got married during our sophomore year."
Upon graduation, Brown headed off to UA to get his law degree and, afterward, reported for duty at JBU; by 1979, he was president. Brown increased enrollment and admission standards during his tenure. In the book Head, Heart, and Hand: John Brown University and Modern Evangelical Higher Education, author Richard Ostrander notes that, though increased enrollment meant a tighter budget, Brown remained committed to his grandfather's original goal and made cuts to programs and athletics rather than student financial aid.
Delia Haak worked for Brown as an administrative assistant when he was president.
"There's only a handful -- maybe even only a couple -- of people that change your life forever in a way that no one else could, and that was him, for me," she says. She was married with two children and had two years of community college under her belt when she worked for Brown, who encouraged her to pursue her degree. "I had one class at 3 in the afternoon that I had to take off for, and he said, 'No problem.' He wasn't pressuring me or pushing me; he was saying, 'You can do this,' and 'Let me know how I can help.' That's the kind of belief in you that makes you really believe in yourself." Haak would eventually earn her MBA and is now an adjunct business professor at JBU.
Brown also instituted mechanisms that would help the university uphold transparency and accountability.
"We started an executive assessment program that I set up to essentially say that the president should be evaluated, just like anyone else on campus," he says. "And we needed to build more of a corporate board, and less of a family kind of insider board. And we did that, which I think really strengthened the institution."
John and Stephania would have five children by the end of his tenure at JBU. Despite the stressors of such a high-pressure job -- and even later, when he would add state senator to his resume -- Stephania says he never shirked his duties at home.
"He's very wise and patient with us all," she says. "He has talked us through the many crises that come with life with children and being in the public view a good deal of the time."
"As a teenager, my dad was often gone to Little Rock during the week but found the time and commitment to make it to the football and basketball games I cheered at all over our conference -- Siloam Springs to Russellville and Harrison," says daughter Jessica Mills. "I remember one phone call I made to him about a nonurgent matter ... probably requesting money for my weekend plans. As he picked up, he said, 'I'm with the governor, dear, but what can I do for you?'"
"We always knew we came first," says daughter Laura Garvey. "He would step out of meetings, conference calls, luncheons, the Senate floor, to answer our phone calls. Every time. He was always available to us."
TIME FOR CHANGE
As Brown approached his 50th birthday, he sensed it was time to make a change at JBU. The difficult part was going to be ending the tradition of a Brown family member in the top position at the university.
"I felt as though I was the transition, the bridge to the next, nonfamily member who would lead the university, and I actually kind of orchestrated stepping down," he explains. "I told the board, 'I'll give you a year to find the next president, while I go look for a job.'"
Shortly after, old friend William Hutcheson Jr. contacted him to see if he was interested in becoming the first executive director of a multimillion dollar charitable trust his family was creating.
"I knew what a foundation was, and I remember him saying, 'You won't have to raise money -- you'll be in a position to help us in making grants and giving money away.' Do you think I would be interested in something like that?'" says Brown, as he widens his eyes in a "Can you believe my luck?" expression. "I said, 'You bet!'"
"I've often thought that John, in many ways, is a fundraiser's dream," says Mark Powers, University of Arkansas' vice chancellor for advancement. "He's so good at talking about the process and staying by your side and helping to guide you through the process for requesting grant funding. He just has a real passion for helping and wanting people to succeed. I've always found him to be such a great adviser and mentor -- someone who is there to help in every way he can. Just a remarkable person."
According to its website, the Windgate Foundation has provided more than $763 million in grants since 1993, the vast majority of that under Brown's leadership. His work with the foundation has touched hundreds, if not thousands, of local and national nonprofit organizations.
Brown had just started working for the foundation when Bentonville's Joe Yates, a longtime state senator, decided not to seek re-election. Brown had held a long-simmering interest in policymaking since his college days. He ran for and won the seat. Ultimately, he would serve two terms in the Arkansas Senate, from 1995 to 2002, and wrote successful legislation in areas such as education and juvenile justice.
"It was interesting to me to see the parallel between private philanthropy and trying to help with nonprofit programs that were serving families and K-12 education," he says. "On the legislative committees, I was the Senate co-chairman (along with a House member chair) of the Joint Interim Committee on Children and Youth, which addressed a number of human services issues like foster care and juveniles in state detention facilities, etc. It was a wonderful learning experience, to see, 'OK, what are the issues that are affecting people, and how can state government help, or provide a foundation, and then, as a foundation, where can we try something new, help fund an expansion or a new program idea?'"
When the foundation moved its offices from Siloam Springs to Little Rock in 2018, Brown accepted a position as senior adviser.
"I'm staying involved and trying to be helpful to grant seekers," he says. "I go to a lot of celebration dinners, scholarship dinners, awards ceremonies and groundbreaking ceremonies. And that's fun because now we have this portfolio of 26 years with the Windgate Foundation, and [we can] see how many of our grantees have expanded, have grown, [and how many of] the projects that we put in space are still working. These are personal relationships with people we've known for a long time."
His position on the AETN Commission is one he takes seriously. It dovetails nicely with his long-term interest in providing accessible educational programming to all Arkansans. He is equally as enthusiastic about his role on the Board of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education in Fort Smith.
"There's a huge need, of course, for staffing in all fields of health care," he says. "For the 160 slots last year, we had over 4,000 applications, and, of that number, 2,000 were screened and identified as qualified applicants. Out of that number, they had 800 on-campus interviews, all to choose 160 students who get to take a seat."
When Brown is asked if he ever considers retiring entirely, he chuckles.
"I think I might drive my wife crazy," he says. "She would start looking for something for me to do."
Stephania, he adds, certainly has enough to keep busy: The family now boasts 12 grandchildren, and she's an expert gardener who treasures time in her garden.
"She knows her stuff and has beautiful garden areas all around our home -- that's one of her joys," he says.
Looking back on Brown's own legacy of nurturing and growing talent, education and spiritual life, it's clear that it's one thing they have in common.
Date and place of birth: July 1, 1949, in Siloam Springs (in the JBU infirmary on campus)
Family: Stephania Brown (wife); Children (all married plus grandkids): Ethan Brown, Jenny Benson, Kathryn Cottrell, Jessica Mills and Laura Garvey
One of my favorite phrases is: "Trust God and go to work." -- John E. Brown Sr.
The best time of day is: Someone once told me that all great leaders get up early. I start the coffee around 4 a.m.
The book I've been recommending lately: Christ Over All -- A History of John Brown University, written and edited by JBU alumnus Paul Semones, and in part by me, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of JBU's founding in 1919.
My favorite place on earth: Either at home or with kids and grandkids for a week in Sandestin, Fla.
Favorite historical figure: Abraham Lincoln, who called America "the last, best hope of earth."
I'm at my best when: I have a challenge and a deadline.
I know I've helped someone when: They send me a written note. I try to do the same for others who have helped me.
If I've learned one thing in life, it's: Not to let fear of failure deter me from setting higher goals.
My most humbling experience was: ROTC summer camp, Fort Riley, Kan., platoon leader for a day when we did a mock assault on an enemy on a wooded hilltop. Our drill instructor was not kind in his assessment.
When no one is looking, I: help myself to a second serving of dessert ... life is meant for such moments.
“Growing up, I always knew my father would be my greatest example of love, patience, understanding. ...He’s never stopped being my hero.” — Laura Garvey
High Profile on 10/06/2019