Onslow loses relentless advocate

September 22, 2008 - 12:31AM



The people of Onslow County have lost a formidable advocate.

Herschel R. Brown was a former Onslow County commissioner and school board member known as a champion for open government, a critic of wasteful spending and a public servant never afraid to speak his mind. He died Saturday evening in his home, surrounded by relatives and friends. He was 87.Brown served on the Board of Commissioners from 1976 to 1980 following two consecutive terms on the Board of Education. He also held a seat on the Onslow County Department of Social Services advisory board.

A building contractor by trade, Brown earned a reputation as a feisty, knowledgeable public figure who asked tough questions and demanded straight answers. A vocal critic of closed-door sessions, Brown championed open and transparent government.

Joe Bynum, who served alongside Brown as a commissioner, said Brown was particularly interested in sound barrier-island development and dune preservation.

"We had round after round on beach development," Bynum said, adding that public access was particularly important to Brown. "He really kept the people he served in mind."

Brown was noted for speaking his mind, even if his opinion wasn't necessarily popular. In recent years, he joined forces with a watchdog group that kept tabs on the expenditure of local tax dollars. He often expressed his dismay at wasteful spending with letters to the editor of The Daily News.

In his professional life, Brown constructed private homes and commercial buildings. He was known to many of his customers for a relentless dedication to quality. Billy Humphrey, who with his brother owned a service station at Pumpkin Center, said Brown built that station for them in 1962 at a cost of $27,000. The 60-by-60-foot building now serves as a GMC dealership.

Humphrey remembers his old friend as honest and hard working.

"He would always pull his end of the saw," Humphrey said.

Over the years, Brown dabbled in a number of hobbies, most notably as the creator and manufacturer of a small, simple instrument known as the canjoe. Constructed of a piece of wood embedded with frets, an empty soft drink can and metal strings, the canjoe be played by anyone, Brown often said.

He had a habit of seeing something and trying to come up with a better way to do it.

On a trip the North Carolina mountains, he saw some mountain dulcimers and knew he could make better ones. He came home and did just that. After spying a cruder form of the canjoe, Brown's immediate reaction was to go home and try to improve on it. His version soon became his biggest hit.

Brown churned out thousands of canjoes over the years, but he never sold them for a profit. He recouped only his costs and donated many hundreds more.

Brown particularly enjoyed sharing them with school children and provided many music teachers with the instruments, which could be played by virtually anyone. He donated canjoes to kids in schools like one in Washington, D.C., that had no budget for musical instruments.

Brown loved the idea that children would get a chance to enjoy music, but often wryly remarked that of all of his life's accomplishment, he would probably be remembered mostly for his canjoe.

In his office hung a photograph of which Brown was particularly proud: It showed a group of Mexican children holding their canjoes.

His son, Raeford Brown, said his father, who refused to copyright his design and freely gave the plans to anyone who wanted them, recently sent canjoes to a group of servicemen in Iraq.

"He loved the military and was very supportive of them, but the kids were his biggest love," Raeford Brown said.

His father and his canjoes were featured in an article that appeared in "Our State Magazine," as well as on a PBS show.

"He thought the world needed a canjoe," Raeford Brown said.

He described Herschel Brown as "compassionate, loving and infectious," and said he was out in his workshop building canjoes only three weeks before his death.

"He had promised them, and he didn't break promises," Raeford Brown said.

Although Herschel Brown held public office, his son said he never liked to be called a politician.

"He didn't take donations; he listened to folks, but made up his own mind and campaigned the same way. He became educated before he became involved in anything," Raeford Brown said.

Raeford's daughter, Candy Brown Thompson, said her grandfather told her he expected her to follow in his footsteps.

"He told me to carry on and 'go get 'em,'" Thompson said. "As soon as I get through all of this, I plan to wade right in," she said.

A native of Wilmington, Herschel Brown came to Jacksonville in 1952 and formed Brown Brothers, a construction company, with two of his brothers, Norman and Irving, both now deceased.

Herschel Brown and his wife, Marguerie, celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary on Oct. 31 of last year. In addition to their son, Raeford, they have a daughter, Suzette Brown Taylor, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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