A Life: Robert Goodell Brown, 1923-2013; ‘He Would Argue to the Point Rather Than Argue to the Man’
Thetford — When it came to breakfast, Robert Brown was a creature of habit.
For the past nine years, Brown drove nearly every morning from his house in Thetford Center, where he lived alone, to Isabell’s Cafe on Route 5. He sat at a small table in a corner, where he could see the customers coming in. Rarely without a book, he read while he ate: two poached eggs on dry wheat toast and coffee, black. He missed breakfast at Isabell’s only on the days it was closed.
An avuncular man with snow white hair and beard, and a barrel-chest, Brown made pleasant small talk with Isabell’s owners, Bev and Don Hodgdon, about their children or the weather. Toward the end of Brown’s life, when he had some difficulty walking, Don Hodgdon would pull Brown’s car up to the cafe door so the older man wouldn’t have to walk too far across the parking lot.
“He was a huge part of our Isabell’s family,” said Bev Hodgdon. A photo of him, along with other esteemed regulars, hangs on the wall.
On October 2, the 90-year-old Brown went to the diner as usual, had his normal breakfast and drove home. That evening, said his son Todd Brown, Bob Brown got into his pajamas and into bed, but never awoke.
“I had no idea he was a genius he was until I read his obituary,” said Bev Hodgdon.
Born and raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., during the Depression, Brown went to Yale at 16 on a scholarship, from which he received both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematical engineering. He was an avid member of both the swim team and the glee club.
His interests over the years were wide in breadth, and deeply investigated: the history of world religions, Shakespeare, opera, Bach, Gilbert and Sullivan, the Greek and Roman classics, the restoration of the pipe organ at the Norwich Congregational Church as well as the restoration of the covered bridges of Thetford, and the Ledyard Bridge to Hanover. He was capable of having “the most far-ranging conversation on a subject,” said Todd Brown, his oldest son, who lives in Maryland.
Brown was a founding member of Light Opera of Norwich, the precursor to Opera North, and performed with the Parish Players. He moved to the Upper Valley from New Jersey in 1976; prior to that he lived with his family in Concord, Mass.
He was married three times, and had two children from his first marriage, and one from his second. (His second son, J.B., lives in the Midwest, and his daughter Ayamanatara (neé Shirley) Brown, from his second marriage to Ingeborg Brown, lives in California.)
After World War II, when he’d served in the Navy in the Pacific theater, he continued to work for the Navy as a member of the Operations Evaluations Group (OEG) that, according to his obituary, “developed what became the prototype for the Air Defense System for North America.”
But it was his work at Arthur D. Little, the international management consulting firm in Boston, that proved groundbreaking, said Todd Brown.
While at Arthur D. Little, Brown developed the theory of exponential smoothing, a statistical model of forecasting supply and demand for inventory control so that manufacturers could anticipate what they needed to make, and when. It’s also called the “Just in time” theory: you have enough stock to meet demand, but not so much you’re overwhelmed with supply.
Arthur D. Little was the kind of place, said Todd Brown, where if someone said “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” the scientists who worked there would set about to prove that they could — and succeed.
Brown also helped to create the SKU, or stock-keeping unit, the bar code used to scan purchases at the checkout counter.
One of the philosophies Bob Brown espoused in his professional life was that “just because you have a problem that is difficult, doesn’t mean it’s insurmountable,” Todd Brown said.
His stature in the field was such that he was a longtime member of the American and British Inventory Control Societies, the International Society of Forecasters, and the American Mathematical Institute, routinely picking up honors and awards for his accomplishments.
He talked to presidents and vice-presidents of industries around the world, his son said, and made a good living as a consultant with such industrial and computer giants as IBM, Caterpillar, John Deere, Ford Motor, Nestle, the Rand Corporation and Saturn. But he “got his biggest insights from the workers. He’d start looking at a process from the point of view of the person doing the job. How do you do the job and what do you think could make your job easier?”
The key, said Todd Brown, was to “make sure you understand what the problem was before you try to solve it.” Without knowing where the difficulty lay, you might actually be running further and further away from the problem.
While Brown was eminently successful in the field of forecasting, he was not always able to predict or read people as well, said two of his children.
“He didn’t like people per se as a concept, but if you brought him an individual he was always very interested in them,” said Ayamanatara Brown, interviewed by phone from Northridge, Calif. “He was a ‘what’ person, not a ‘why’ person. People’s reasoning for why they did what they did didn’t really interest him.”
He could be stubborn, said Todd Brown. “I learned a long, long time ago that you could offer suggestions but that you better have arguments as to why that’s a good suggestion, and what the pluses and minuses were. He was extremely strong-willed and did not suffer fools at all.”
Despite talk in recent years about selling the rambling Thetford house, and moving into a smaller home, and of having people come in to help him, because his eyesight was poor and his mobility limited, Brown had never gotten around to doing any of the things other people wanted him to, which was no accident, said Todd Brown.
Brown wanted to stay in his home until he died, surrounded by his vast collection of books and the research projects that engaged him. He gave away portions of his library, “but he always filled it right back up with again with books,” said Todd Brown.
“His library was about as large as our library,” said Peter Blodgett, the librarian at Latham Library in Thetford, who befriended Brown. Brown donated books by the truckful to the library, some of those books whose cost “we normally couldn’t afford to justify. They are treasured volumes in the collection,” Blodgett said.
Brown and Blodgett’s conversations roamed far afield, Blodgett said. “He was interested in the origins of belief and faith,” and he was an omnivorous reader.
Blodgett liked listening to what Brown had to say because his interests were so catholic, but, he added, “I wouldn’t have dared to argue with him. I learned a lot more by listening than talking. I think he would have listened to the points of my argument and then proceeded to pick them apart. I think he was a very rational, logical thinker; he would argue to the point rather than argue to the man.”
He was, Blodgett said, “a civilized man” in an era where arguing, loudly and often meanly, to the man, rather than the point, often prevails.
He was also a very funny man, a devotee of the British writers P.G. Wodehouse and Henry Cecil.
“He was smart and he had a great sense of humor,” said Susan Brown, his third wife, who lives in Haverhill. (They were divorced in 1998, after 10 years of marriage.)
“Dad was a punner, he loved playing with words. To me, it’s more of a British sense of humor, more Monty Python than the Three Stooges,” said Ayamanatara Brown. “He and my brother Todd would sit at the dinner table and have an entire conversation in nothing but puns, and I would sit there and throw a napkin at them.”
Susan Brown met her future husband when he was in a Light Opera of Norwich staging of the Pirates of Penzance with her then-adolescent daughter Nancy. Susan Brown and Bob Brown became friends and also sang together in Summer Revels; he had a fine bass-baritone, she said.
In the early years of their marriage he whisked her away on trips to Greece and Italy, and to England, where they stayed at the finest London hotels: The Savoy, the Dorchester, Brown’s. “I always had a menu without prices,” Brown said.
He took her to Burberry’s and Liberty of London, and bought himself luggage made from leather “retrieved from a sunken Spanish galleon,” which he paid for in cash, she said.
His generosity was bestowed far and wide. He cared passionately about education and when she was still teaching Latin and English at Thetford Academy, he chipped in with funding for materials and field trips whenever needed.
“Everything I needed for my classroom, he provided it,” she said.
The marriage, she said, was “never ordinary, never dull. It was full of theater and books and travel.”
If he were interested in you, said Ayamanatara Brown, “there was this brightness that happened in his eyes….When you were talking to him you were the only person in the room. It was like his aura brightened. … It was just a very cool skill that he had. It’s made me kind of spoiled; I don’t do small talk.”
In the last 15 or 20 years of his life, Brown became more interested, said Todd Brown, in “what I’d call long view history, from pre-Biblical to current time. What were the roots of current alliances and animosities? ... His idea of looking at things was usually tens of centuries of time.”
Which is why the fact that his relationships with people seemed to fall into a 10-year cycle is something of a mystery, said Todd Brown, Ayamanatara Brown, and Susan Brown. They speculate that it had to do with the death of his own father when he was just 10, a devastating loss. He missed his father right to the end of his life, said Ayamanatara Brown.
“He found some people along the way in his life that he valued, some for longer than others, and others not for so long. That was the way he was,” said Todd Brown.
When he was much older, Ayamanatara Brown floated the 10-year theory to her father. He looked at her, and said, sounding not too surprised, “Huh,” and left it at that.
Nicola Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
The late Robert Brown suggested ways to keep the septic system at Thetford Elementary School well-maintained and functioning. An earlier version of this story overstated his involvement in the construction of the system.