Outgoing mayor has plenty to do

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Kathy Chaffin
CLEVELAND ó After serving 14 years as mayor here, James A. “Jim” Brown Jr. decided not to run for an eighth term in the Nov. 3 election.
He will preside over his last Cleveland Town Board of Commissioners meeting on Dec. 14. His last official duty will be swearing in newly-elected Mayor John I. Steele Jr. and incumbents Danny Gabriel and Pat Phifer, along with newcomer Travis Summitt as town commissioners.
Brown says he decided to step down for two reasons. “No. 1 is my age,” he says. “I turned 70 in October, and I figure that they’ve probably had enough of me.”
Secondly, Brown says, “I have other things to do. I’ve been involved in disaster relief work with North Carolina Baptist Men for 10 or 12 years, and I’ve also done overseas disaster work in Sri Lanka (the Indian Ocean island devastated by the 2004 tsunami) and mission work in South Africa. This is just going to give me an opportunity to continue to do those things without being burdened by whether I’m going to be gone during a meeting.”
Though he’s proud of the positive changes in Cleveland, Brown is adamant about not taking credit for them.
“It’s not what I’ve done,” he says. “It’s what we’ve done collectively. We have worked together over the years with area churches, schools and civic groups, and they have greatly contributed to the qualify of life.
“I just happened to be fortunate enough to be serving as mayor during this period of time.”
When Brown took office in 1995, after more than six years as commissioner, the town had four full-time employees, two at Town Hall and two at the Cleveland Police Department. Today, the town has nine full-time employees and 10 who work part time.
Cleveland has also upgraded services and infrastructure, all without borrowing any money. “And we still have the lowest tax rate and lowest water/sewer rates in Rowan County,” he says.
Cleveland’s tax rate was 19 cents per $100 valuation when Brown started as mayor, and it’s only been raised once since then. Brown strongly opposed the board’s decision to raise the rate to 21 cents in 2008.
The town has upgraded its park and started a Spring Festival in 2004 that has now expanded to include an annual Heritage Festival in the fall. A new Cleveland Town Hall was built in 2005, and the old Town Hall was converted and remodeled to house the police department in 2006.
Born in Banner Elk, Brown was 6 years old when his family returned to his father’s hometown of Cleveland, where his parents worked together in their medical practice. They met when Dr. James A. Brown Sr. worked with Janelle Caldwell at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Ga. After they were married, she was his nurse.
“My dad made house calls practically until he died,” Brown says, sometimes delivering babies in patients’ homes.
Cleveland was even more rural then. “If you look at some of the school pictures that came out in the 1950s,” he says, “and you look at Appalachia pictures today, you can’t tell the difference. We wore bib overalls, brogan shoes …”
Jim Brown’s first job was working on his uncle Charles Alexander Brown Jr.’s farm for $1 a day. He was 12. “I was a general laborer,” he says, “and did whatever needed to be done. I learned what it meant to have a good work ethic.”
Brown went to Cleveland schools, where he played baseball, basketball and football. “I wasn’t good at any of them,” he says, “but I participated in all of them.”
As a freshman at Cleveland High School, Brown was 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 130 pounds. He was 5 feet 7 inches when he graduated in 1957 and weighed 155 pounds.
He joined the Navy and grew 6 more inches, adding 45 pounds. His service took him from San Diego to aviation and fire control technician school in Memphis to the USS Saratoga. Stationed in Mayport, Fla., the ship sailed all over the Mediterranean as far west as Istanbul, Turkey.
Afterward, Brown went to N.C. State University to study electrical engineering, but returned home after his father had a stroke. He went to work for Sherwin-Williams and married Nancy Graham of Salisbury.
The Browns had two children, John and Margaret. Jim worked for Sherwin-Williams until his retirement, serving as store manager in Salisbury, Columbia, S.C., and Statesville; commercial store manager in Charlotte; and sales manager in the Charlotte and Greenville, S.C., district offices.
“I’ve got a gift of gab,” he says, “and most anyone who can build friendships and relationships can be successful in sales, and I was. I loved it.”
Brown retired in 2002, returning to work three days a week the following year for Auto Zone, delivering parts to other stores. “This affords me the opportunity to travel and do mission work,” Brown says, “because all the travel expenses, everything, we pay for ourselves.”
Brown gets emotional when he talks about his mission work. “If you ever ask anyone that’s been on a mission trip, either internationally or locally,” he explains, “they will tell you that they’re the ones that receive the blessings … I’ve been very blessed in my life with a good job, great family, great support, and I feel like as blessed as I’ve been, I need to give back.
“And I hope to continue to do that as long as my health holds up.”
Jim and Nancy Brown went on their first mission trip to South Africa in 2003. They returned later to Margate, South Africa, helping to conduct revivals for the Zulu natives with missionary Andy Limbaugh.
“The first thing you realize when you go into a Third World country is just how blessed you are,” he says. “You see people that are concerned about their next meal, not their next vacation.’
Brown has been on several disaster relief missions with the North Carolina Baptist Men after major disasters such as hurricanes Floyd, Isabel and Katrina.
“When you go to a disaster relief area where people have lost everything,” he says, “you try to give them a feeling of hope and to let them know that they’re not by themselves, that you’re there to help them and support them.”
The memory of a Gulfport, Miss., woman who he was able to help after Hurricane Katrina still moves Brown to tears. She was staying with her husband, who was a patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., when Katrina hit, and Brown talked with her shortly after she returned home to find their house devastated by the hurricane.
“I called her at 9 o’clock in the morning to go out to see her,” he recalls, “and she told me that she was ready to commit suicide.”
Brown and the other Baptist Men volunteers took her to church with them and made sure she got fed. “I asked her No. 1 about her spiritual condition,” he says, “and she assured me that she was a Christian. I said, ‘Well, don’t be despondent, God’s still in command, and you’re going to get through this, and we’re going to see to it.’
“The longer we stayed, the better she got. We were there for almost a solid week and when we left, she was in pretty good spirits.”
He still hears from the woman. She and her husband were able to sell their house that the volunteers repaired and now live in a retirement home.
Brown and his son, John, are planning a mission trip to Alaska, next year, to help roof, side, paint and remodel homes for people who can’t afford to.
In Cleveland, Brown is a member of the local Lions Club, helping with fundraisers such as the annual Brunswick Stew this past Saturday. He was honored last year by Lions International with the Melvin Jones Fellowship Award. Named for the club’s founder, the award recognizes members for exemplary service to his club and the community for which it serves.
Brown also plays golf with the Rowan County GARS (Golf Association of Retired Citizens) and rarely misses a West Rowan sporting event. “My buddy, Phil Young, and I never miss a home game and most away games for as many sports as we can go to,” he says.
He and wife Nancy also enjoy spending time with their three grandsons and three granddaughters, ages 3 to 18. “We play ball with the girls, especially,” he says. “We just enjoy being together.”
“Life is just so much more gratifying if you allow yourself to get involved with other people,” he says. “So many people say, ‘Well, I’m going to work. I’m going to gain a fortune and then I’m going to sit back and I’m going to rest.’
“I wouldn’t take anything in the world for what I’ve been able to do for other people,” he says.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.