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July 24, 2011

Thank You, Duncan Brown

"It was a cold wet night on the North Atlantic," Duncan Brown told Mary and me; "I was a gunnery officer on a destroyer escorting a convoy through U-Boat hunting grounds. I had a night watch; the rain dripped down the back of my slicker; the coffee was awful; and I wondered whether we or one of the troop ships we were escorting would be blown up by a torpedo from an invisible submarine in the next few minutes. Mostly that night I wondered how I and the world had come to be in such a dreadful place.

"By the end of my watch at dawn, I had figured it out: the world was in the state it was in because German citizens had abdicated their civic responsibility."

Duncan Brown, who died Friday in Shelburne at the age of 90, never abdicated his civic responsibility. Right after the war he went home to Cincinnati where corruption was rampant. He marched into the tiny office of the tiny reform movement. It wasn't easy but they threw the rascals out.

He moved to Vermont in 1949 and, with one four-year hiatus, has lived here ever since. We are much the better for having had Duncan Brown exercising his civic responsibility here. His example made all of us who knew him do more and do better than we would have otherwise.

In private life he was cofounder of an extremely successful and innovative Burlington insurance agency. They were one of the first businesses in Vermont to use computers. Duncan, who was always well-dressed and courtly and scarcely fit the image of a nerd, taught himself to program when programming was really hard. The experts couldn't get the computer to do what he needed it to do; he did.

Duncan never ran for office although he served on innumerable boards and was Chair of The District Four Environmental Commission, the Vermont Water Resources Board, the Hospital Data Council, and an early Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care. He was a prodigious fundraiser in his continuous pursuit of a better civil society. He put his talents to work as Finance Chairman for his best friend Dick Snelling; Brown knew Snelling shared his passion for good government. Helping Snelling become Governor and helping Snelling govern with disinterested but thoughtful and heartfelt advice were part of exercising his civil responsibility. Not incidentally he was scrupulous about not using his status as fundraiser-in-chief for personal advantage or even to push pet projects.

The first time I met him I was Transportation Secretary in the Snelling Administration. Duncan had some important advice to give me about upcoming transportation hearings on a proposed mall. Once I agreed to meet with him, he resigned his position – I believe it was as Chair of the District Environmental Commission – because he believed that otherwise our meeting would be ex parte and compromise his ability to be objective.

After Dick Snelling's untimely death, Duncan Brown, Bill Gilbert, the Snelling Family, and a few others established the Snelling Center for Government both to honor Dick's memory and to continue Dick and Duncan's good governance mission. It's at 6221 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, VT 05482 and is where Duncan would like donations sent.

Thank you, Duncan Brown.

Duncan Brown's obituary: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/burlingtonfreepress/obituary.aspx?n=duncan-fraser-brown&pid=152688307

Candy Page's excellent article about Duncan in the Burlington Free Press: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20110723/NEWS01/110723005/Duncan-Brown-longtime-civic-leader-dies-90

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