Mt. Pleasant’s Musician Master – Empty Nest by Curt Swarm


On a table in front of Dr. Joel Brown’s picture window is a large Nativity Set with maybe 25 pieces.  (This is in the middle of January.)  He explains, “One of the Wise Men lost his head.”  (The head is lying beside the figure.)  “He’s been that way a long time.” 

I ask, “Can’t you Super Glue the head back on?”

“Oh, I suppose.  Jill hand painted the nativity figures.”  (Jill is Dr. Brown’s wife who died 18 years ago.)  “So, if I do it, I want it done right.”

There are books everywhere.  Sitting on Dr. Brown’s piano is a bust of Johann Sebastian Bach.

When the pandemic struck, and people were isolating, Dr. Brown, who lives alone except for an occasional foreign student, needed to keep busy.  He decided to play a piece of Bach’s music every morning on the piano for 90 days.  After completing that, he went on to Chopin, Beethoven and others.  The music gave him a lift that carried him through the day.  

Dr. Brown was born in Black Lick, Virginia, in 1943, on a small dairy farm.  It was hilly country and they couldn’t even see their nearest neighbor.  He doesn’t remember much about his younger life, but at an early age, around the fourth grade, he became acutely aware of the rapid passing of time.  

The school he attended in Rural Retreat, Virginia, a town of about 800, had a room attached for piano lessons.  The piano teacher came to the classroom and asked if anyone was interested in taking piano lessons.  Little Jody Brown (they called him Jody) raised his hand.  Later, the piano teacher, Miss Margaret, who studied at Juilliard during the summers, called Joel’s mother.  “Jody has quite a talent for music.”   

That’s an understatement.  Joel Brown received a BA in Music from Lenoir-Rhyne University at Hickory, North Carolina, where his father, aunt and a couple of cousins attended.  He then went on to Indiana University where he received a Masters and Doctorate Degree in Music Pedagogy.  He played once at Carnegie Hall.  Unusual for an Appalachian farming community, most of Joel Brown’s family, and about half of the surrounding farmers, had college educations. 

The Browns raised Jersey milk cows, and Joel credits much of his success and outlook on life to his time in 4-H where he rose to attend the National 4-H Congress in Chicago, and received a scholarship from the Oliver Tractor Corporation.  His father was Outstanding Jersey Breeder of the Year, twice.  Dr. Joel Brown is an odd combination of down-to-earth farmer and cerebral college professor.    

He met his wife, Jill, through music.  She has a degree in Elementary Education from Augustana University in Rock Island, and was in chorus when Joel was filling in for the music professor.  Joel secured a position teaching music at Iowa Wesleyan College (it’s now a University) in Mt. Pleasant.  Jill and Joel moved into a basement apartment close to campus and proceeded to have four beautiful girls: Kari, Erika, Aani, and Kirsten—Scandinavian names after Jill’s Norwegian and Swedish heritage.  The four girls sing like Angels and look like Jill.  Even though the elementary school was across the street, Jill home schooled the girls through the second grade.

Basement apartments of course aren’t big enough for a family of six.  A friend of the Brown’s took Joel by the hand and showed him how to secure a FHA loan.  The house next door belonged to the head of the music department at Iowa Wesleyan.  When he retired, the Brown’s bought the house, moved in, and had room galore. 

While walking to the car one day, Jill was having difficulty breathing and passed out.  She was diagnosed with Primary Pulmonary Hypertension—her lungs weren’t supplying enough oxygen to her heart.  She died on Labor Day, 2004, at the age of 55.  Kari was in graduate school at Purdue.  Erika was beginning her junior year at Augustana.  The Browns had just taken Aani to Capital University in Columbus, Ohio to start her freshman year, and Kirsten was a junior in high school.  Joel was a widower. 

He survived.  Joel handles his grief perhaps like orchestrating Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor—it’s okay to tear up, but life is still beautiful, so enjoy it.  He has a lot to be thankful for.  Instead of being able to show Jill a beautiful double rainbow, he can knock on the neighbor’s door and show them.  He has six wonderful grandchildren and four son-in-laws who he really looks to as sons.  His daughters are spread out over Kenosha, Wisconsin, Northern Chicago, and Brooklyn, New York.  They have assured him that if he gets to the point where he needs care, he can live with them—three months here, three months there, and so on.  Much of his life has been serendipitous, and he sees it continuing that way.

In 2014, Dr. Joel Brown had quadruple bypass surgery.  But his heart is strong and he gets along fine.  He has a bike he rides everywhere and loves to go on hikes and take pictures of sunsets and tree-lined trails.  He posts the pictures on Facebook, especially for housebound friends who can’t get out.  He prepares elaborate dinners for a close group of select friends.  He believes the words of his good friend, Father Wayne Kamm, “We’re not human doers, we’re human beings.  It’s more important how we are, not how we do.” 

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