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Richard Brown: ‘History is the most important factor’

By Staff | Dec 12, 2008

Richard "Dickie" Brown at his Shepherdstown shop

What is it about Shepherdstown? It’s just a little town in West Virginia. But the mention of the name seems to elicit the same reaction from all points. “Oh, I’ve heard of Shepherdstown. I hear it’s wonderful.” So true‚ but why does this town enjoy such notoriety? Is it history, architecture, charm, the people. Yes, it is‚ to all of the above. (If we could bottle the charm, we’d all be rich.) Personally, I think it isn’t one thing, it’s everything, all fitting together to make a lovely place to live a life. Shepherdstown is not unlike a magnificent piece of jewelry, in it’s totality it’s breath taking, but there are always gems that stand out. Richard Brown is one of those gems.

Richard “Dickie” Brown has lived in Jefferson County all of his life. He’s a shy but very charming guy with an easy laugh and appreciation for the beauty of historic West Virginia. Born in Charles Town and raised on a farm in Shenandoah Junction, Richard went to Shepherdstown Elementary School, Shepherdstown High School and Shepherd College. Charles, his dad, was a dairy farmer all his life. Richard’s mother, Eleanor and sister, Florence, today live out on Ridge Road.

Upon completion of his first year at Shepherd College, Richard was offered the opportunity to be a Forest Ranger for the Department of Natural Resources and took it. Shortly thereafter he married the absolutely darling Barbara Maddex, then a Freshmen at Shepherd. Richard and Barbara have been married for forty eight years and this speaks volumes about the importance of a shared passion for the important things and a great sense of humor. Barbara Brown is as delightful and funny today as I’m sure she was when she met Richard.

Of her high school crush Barbara admitted, “All the girls were after Richard. He was handsome and older and he had a boat.” It was a flat bottom boat and their first date evolved from the romantic “You girls want to go for a boat ride?” Richard then invited Barbara home to meet his folks and Mrs. Brown proceeded to sit on the couch with a box of photos of Richard’s former girl friends and go through them with Barbara, reading all the little notes. What a wonderful way to get to know your boyfriend’s family. Barbara just rolled her eyes at the telling of this and Richard simply said “My mother just thought you’d like to see some pictures.” Barbara, the daughter of Gerry and Henry Maddex, admitted “My mother loved Richard from day one.”

Richard Jr. came along a year after they were married, everybody was thrilled. Then came little Ronald, and they were on their way to a basketball team.

Barbara was in the hospital and in hard labor with Ronnie when Richard seized on this perfect moment to tell her “I’m going back to college.” Did I mention Barbara has the patience of a saint?

While a forest ranger, Richard, “found my love in historic restoration.” Barbara’s father, a well-known restoration carpenter and builder, hired Richard to be his apprentice and Richard went back to Shepherd and earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Biology. The Brown family continued to grow. After Richard and Ronnie were born, male dominance in the Brown home came to an abrupt end. Elizabeth arrived, then Amanda, then Katy and finally Margaret. The Brown’s love talking about their kids and there are family treasures throughout their home. The “children” all live within driving distance and today there are fifteen grandchildren and one great-grand baby.

In 1969 Richard Brown struck out on his own. “It was time,” he said. “Shepherdstown was a real market for restoration carpentry and everybody wanted it done right.” And right it was done. Then in the late seventies, Richard left private practice and pursued his passion for restoration as an exhibit specialist at the National Park Service restoring the historic treasures of Harpers Ferry.

1984 brought the dream jobs. He was appointed Chief of Cultural Resources and Chief of Maintenance of the Antietam National Battlefield and Piper Farm. When asked what exactly were his facilities responsibilities, Richard quietly said “everything.”

“When I was hired, the entire property covered 1,700 acres.” During his term as Project Manager of $4 million worth of restorations at Antietam and Monocacy National Battlefields, farms and other property were acquired and when he retired his domain incorporated a total of 3,400 acres. Of Antietam he said, “And I’ve always been amazed at the bravery of those soldiers. They met each other face- to-face knowing their chances of survival were nil. They were so young and so brave.” Richard speaks with quiet pride at having the honor of preserving their story.

Richard Brown enlisted in the United States Navy Reserve in 1977 and when Desert Storm erupted in 1989 he was called to duty as a SeaBee. “I was the oldest man in the battalion and had never been on a ship in my life but it was my patriotic duty. … We were sent to Port Wanimi, California, and I really expected a couple of months to get used to the idea of shipping out.”

The call came quickly “You will report to Cumberland, Maryland, tomorrow morning.” Richard flew to Andrews and then out to Guam where he spent the next six months loading B-52 bombs on ships headed for Kuwait. Then he came home. Richard was in the Navy Reserves for 20 years.

In the early years of this decade, as President of the Elmwood Cemetery Association, he undertook a strictly volunteer job helping contractor Jake Osborn with the restoration of the Elmwood Cemetery. The historic landmark on W.Va. 480 predates the Revolutionary War but is most famous for the many Civil War soldiers buried here. “History is the most important factor,” said Richard. “If we lose the stones we’ve lost the history. It’s a heritage everyone needs to respect.” The Elmwood Cemetery has more than 1,000 visitors every year. Still a work in progress, when completed, Elmwood will pay a fitting tribute to all those boys buried in the pastoral West Virginia countryside.

Today Richard and Barbara Brown live in the home built by Barbara’s grandfather in 1909. The home they’ve lived in for 46 years, where they raised their six children and where they still enjoy the heck out of each others’ company. It’s one of those homes you drive by and think how great it would be to live there.

So charming is this big buttery structure with it’s wrap-around porch and stately white colum

ns, picket fence and Barbara’s garden, it looks like the country manor house on a movie set. Everything restorable has been restored to perfection by the Lord of the Manse. The barn, built of recyclable materials, took Richard 10 years to complete. It’s his playroom. He says he works there, and there is a lot of evidence to support that statement, but then there’s that refrigerator, that easy chair, that flat screen TV. It’s a sweet set-up.

Spending a morning with Richard Brown is like giving yourself a gift. He’s the personification of what’s good about Shepherdstown. His heart belongs to his family; and he has spent a lifetime restoring and maintaining the historical beauty that makes this part of the world so extraordinary, and us so fortunate to live here.

— Sue Kennedy is a former public

relations executive and Emmy Award winning screenplay writer.