Harry Lewis Brown started working at the Bank of Smithtown in 1928 according to his obituary. He served continuously--first as cashier and then executive vice president, then as chief operating officer. In 1956 he was named the bank’s fourth president. You don’t hear a lot of nice things about bankers these days, but Harry Brown, my PopPop, taught me that banking is an art and a banker can be the heart of a community.
He loved to tell stories about his adventures in banking. One lady who applied for a loan invited him to her home. She showed him the cold cellar where she had put up shelf after shelf of food from her garden. He looked at the array of shining jars and said, “Anyone who works that hard and is that thrifty will pay back our loan.” And she did.
And then there was the lady who said,
“Harry, I want a new mink and the sales are on but I’m not liquid at the moment. Will you float me a loan?”
“Well, what do you have for collateral?” he asked. She put her hands on her hips a la Mae West, ogled him and said, “Harry, do you really have to ask?” She later came in and modeled the new coat for him. He loved telling that story; I think it made him feel kind of roguish.
He could be tough, too; he repossessed a man’s car on Christmas Eve. When we said that seemed pretty cruel he answered, “I was the making of that young man!” Apparently having his car repossessed was the wake-up call the young man needed to turn his life around.
To PopPop, honoring one’s commitments was the cornerstone of an honorable life and financial responsibility was inextricably tied to one's character. He believed that, he lived it, and was able through his work and his position to teach it. I learned it too.
When I dropped out of college at twenty I ran up big debts--phone bills, parking tickets, a charge account at a clothing store. I had to work all summer as a waitress to pay off those debts. By September I was back up to zero. My father lent me one hundred dollars—and I left Vermont for New York City. Later my mother said, “You know, I was proud of you for working so hard to pay off your debts; not everyone would have done that.” I said, “Huh?” It never occurred to me that I could walk away from my debt. I was even surprised that Mom said that. I thought it was a given that you pay your debts.
The bank gave a party for his eightieth birthday. Here he is with Mom and her sister, Pricilla.
One Sunday morning in New York City, I said to Arthur, “What do you want to do today? Let’s not just sit around like we always do.” And he said, “Let’s go see PopPop.” He was only about an hour’s drive away. I called and said, “PopPop, we’re coming to take you out to dinner wherever you want to go.” We brought our baby, Jessie, his great-granddaughter, my parents drove in from West Hampton where they were living, and we went to the restaurant of his choice, not the most elegant in town but the one where he was most likely to run into people he knew. We had a wonderful time sitting at a big round table, Jessie in a high chair, throwing breadsticks on the floor. Several of his friends and neighbors came over and he proudly introduced us all. When we took him home afterward he said, “This has been an enchanted evening!” And it was.
There was something about PopPop that doesn’t quite come across in these stories. I visited him once when I was in a black mood--furious at my boyfriend, thinking that my life was going nowhere and everything was awful. He didn’t say anything special to me but as I waved goodbye to him after our lunch I realized that all that darkness was gone and I had forgotten my anger. Something about being with him made me feel happy. What was it? How did he find peace after suffering the loss of his beloved son and living with his wife’s chronic illness? He carried grief with him all his days, but he found room for joy as well. As my mother tells it, courage is the will to get up every morning, brush your teeth and live your life.
Here he's sitting in his garden. My brother, Alan, is named for Alan Brown, killed in action in Germany, April 1945. If I could read PopPop's mind at that moment he might have been saying, “Here I am in my garden on a sunny day, with my grandson on my lap.No matter what else has happened I can savor this moment.” He probably didn’t say those words, but I think he lived them.
His baby picture