All of us at OSU Press were deeply saddened to learn that Gloria Brown passed away last week. Gloria's memoir, Black Woman in Green, which she wrote with Donna Sinclair, was published in the Spring of 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began reshaping our world. She was the shining star of our first-ever Zoom event, attended by over 100 people from all over the world (watch the recording here). Whether in person or on screen, Gloria was a dynamic presence: vibrant, outspoken, optimistic, generous, and brave. In short, she inspired us all. Today on the OSU Press blog, we're honored to share this tribute from Gloria's coauthor, Donna Sinclair.
I am heartbroken to tell you that my dear friend, Gloria Brown, left this world on September 7, 2021. I wanted to post this earlier, but just haven’t been able to write till now.
I met Gloria through her voice nearly twenty years ago when one of my students interviewed her in 2002. At the time, she was forest supervisor on the Siuslaw National Forest, the first African American female to run a national forest in U.S. history. I literally cried as I heard her story for the first time, in part because of the calm way she talked about her husband’s death – killed by a drunk driver – and her subsequent rise in the Forest Service. I didn’t know then that she was with him when it happened or about the severe depression she faced afterward. I could only guess at the impact of his loss because she focused on making my student feel comfortable as she told her story, using her first name throughout the interview and providing a positive and professional role model for the young woman. That’s how Gloria was, a leader and a mentor to others.
Gloria Brown joined the Forest Service in 1974 as a dictation transcriber and retired in 2007 as a GS-15 supervisor of the Los Padres National Forest. That’s nearly as high as you can go in government service and she’d likely have advanced further, but cancer struck. Gloria’s story is compelling because of her character, because she did something no one had before, and because she showed others that they, too, could fulfill their potential. (Photo at right: Donna Sinclair with Gloria Brown at the Oregon Historical Society in March 2020)
Imagine the courage it took for a young widow with three children, a lifelong city girl, to leave Washington, D.C. with her three black children and head to Missoula, Montana in 1988, a state with very few African Americans (less than 1% of the population). That movement, that moment speaks volumes about Gloria. She never let anything stop her. Once she decided to advance in the agency, she strategized about how to do it. She then made it happen by sheer force of will and smarts, laced with wit and charm.
I did not meet Gloria Brown in person until 2013 when a friend of mine connected with her at a party and got her contact info. This was pure serendipity, as I had been planning to find her for my dissertation work. I reached out and interviewed Gloria a couple of times and soon told her I thought she should write a book, secretly hoping she would ask me to help. She seemed to know my thoughts and I hers – she asked and I agreed. We became partners.
There was something palpable that resonated between us that allowed Gloria and I to work in a way that translated her essence onto the page, sometimes through transcribed interviews, at others through text drafted individually and then pored over jointly, word by word. As we worked on the book, I juggled multiple projects and ran for office. Gloria engaged in volunteer activities and activism, and then her daughter’s health challenges took her away for nearly a year. We struggled to find writing time together, and we did, in bits and pieces. Right around the time the book was copyedited, Gloria became ill again, but by the time it came out of press, she rallied and went on to share her story all over the country—mainly on zoom.
It took us four years to write the book, edit it, and launch it at the Oregon Historical Society in March 2020. This was just before covid hit and I’ll never forget going to dinner with her family after our talk. I will always treasure that day. It was the only time we presented together in person. She was feeling good and looking good in true, vivacious Gloria style! By then, we had traveled and spent weekends together, interviewed other people, and spent hours in person and on FaceTime to complete the book, even as she went in and out of remission, always downplaying her illness.
The first time Gloria told someone she planned to become a forest supervisor, they laughed. That laughter fueled her resolve. No one was going to tell Gloria she couldn’t be in charge. She showed them she could and would. Gloria didn’t like to focus on the hard parts and I sometimes had to push her to tell stories like that. Hers was a challenging journey, and she made it look easy from the outside, but it wasn’t. Her life was harder than we wrote and harder than we know. It was also gratifying, the kind of life of meaning that most of us yearn for. Gloria raised three wonderful children who created a beautiful family legacy for the woman they called Mother Bear. I think they are why her lifetime of overcoming challenges left a desire to pass on positive lessons. Gloria inspired others to reach for their dreams, to know and believe in their capabilities. She told her story so that her family and her readers would believe in themselves. She wanted everyone who heard her story to know that if they put their minds to it, they could make their dreams come true in spite of, and sometimes because of, the barriers they faced.
As a family friend of Gloria and Phil’s said the other day, there was something of the divine in our connection. In retrospect, I’m not sure how we made this book happen in the midst of our other life challenges, but we both knew it was necessary, that her story was special and people needed to know her. Last January, Gloria called and asked me to shepherd the book through with the press and to keep telling her story. I promised I would and told her what an honor it was to play a small part in her amazing life journey. I am grateful for the serendipity that brought us together and that which has continued ever since.
RIP, Gloria Brown. You have made your mark on the world, just as you always knew you would.