The tale of Dick and Evelyn Brown is a true American Love Story. Not only does Dick Brown’s story embody those long held virtues that one sees in stories of many American folk heroes, such as rising above challenging circumstances, but it also involves love at first sight.
Reinforcing that American story is that Richard Hamilton (Dick) Brown was born in our nation’s capital, Washington, DC, and attended a segregated public school system. That was the life he knew from an early age, a life where he and his family would be separated from others because of skin color.
Even though the public schools were segregated, Dick and his family greatly valued education in all of its forms. His parents had not gone to high school, but they instilled the virtue of learning in their six children. Dick’s mother taught her daughter and five sons to read and he recalls spending many days going to libraries and museums and taking in the arts as often as possible.
Those values from his parents have become generational and Dick has devoted his life not just to educating his children, but to promoting education for everyone in his life. He and his brothers attended the YMCA, church groups, and learned to swim in the community pool, a lesson that would change his life years later in ways he wouldn’t imagine as a child. Dick started working at the age of nine, shining shoes and later working as a dishwasher. He is proud of his early life, but, like his parents before him, he knew early on that he would want a better life for his own children.
The path to that better life has always meant more education. Dick hoped to study architecture at Howard University, but he could not afford the tuition and other costs. At the encouragement of others, he applied for the United States Air Force Academy, which would be tuition free and was then, in 1953, still in an organizational stage. While he waited to learn about the Air Force, Dick continued to work and, in January of 1954, he entered Cheyney State Teachers College, where he was able to receive a scholarship with the help of his high school drafting teacher, Mr. Johnson.
Unbeknownst to Dick, the Air Force Academy had in fact called his house to let him know that he was accepted. His little sister took the message but did not tell him because she was so excited that she wanted to tell him in person. When he found out, months later while on spring break, he called the academy, only to learn that it was too late and that class had been filled. While he still laughs and won’t let his sister forget that, his life would have been completely different had he received that message in time. In fact, if he had joined the Air Force, he probably would not have met his lovely wife Evelyn.
Before he could reach the highs of his life, Dick would face more lows. His scholarship at Cheyney did not include full room and board and he could not get a job to cover his costs. Unfortunately, he felt he had no other option but to drop out of college and he became homeless. Instead of living with his family or living in the dorm, Dick was now living at 30th Street Train Station in Philadelphia, which was at least safe and had some access to amenities like bathrooms.
Life became harder before it became easier. Dick did work unloading trains, but it was not reliable. He got food from friends, but it was not consistent. Again he was faced with no good choices. He moved back to Washington, DC and signed up for the U.S. Army.
Dick Brown’s time in the army lasted from 1957 until 1959, where he served as a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division. Even there, Dick stood up for himself against forms of discrimination. When he was given a mop, he said “I just want to do what is in my job description.” Instead of facing obstacles though, he looked for and found opportunities. That was how he’d survived and grown throughout his life. He played basketball with the team at Fort Meade and continued with his division as they did tours of duty in Europe.
The time in the Army gave Dick another chance at the life he wanted, which meant education. He returned to Cheyney State College and earned his BS in Industrial Arts Education. While at Cheyney, he ran track and played football and basketball and also became a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. He has remained active in the Philadelphia Chapter of his fraternity ever since.
After obtaining his degree, Dick began his true calling and he became a public school teacher in Philadelphia. His first job was at Tilden Junior High and then he went on to teach at Bartram and Frankford High Schools. Teaching became his life and he lived the values that his parents had taught him when he was young. In addition to the classroom lessons, Dick helped his students grow as people by showing them how he’d survived.
Teaching was not Dick’s only job. In the summers, he was a lifeguard at League Island Pool. There he saw another young woman working. In fact, she was the first female lifeguard at a Philadelphia public pool. Her name was Evelyn and it was love at first sight.
There was one big obstacle that came between Dick and Evelyn when the first met. At the time, Dick was 29 years old and Evelyn was not quite 18 years old herself. He was not going to get himself in trouble, not with all that he’d gone through in his life. They spent time together, talked, ate, but he would not so much as kiss her until she turned 18. Their first kiss helped start them on a lifetime together and they have been in love now for 50 years.
Evelyn and Dick have two children together and Dick has four other children from a previous marriage. When they first were married, Evelyn was a stay at home mom. Dick encouraged her to go to college for her own personal fulfillment. Like her husband, Evelyn went to Cheyney, where she earned a degree in education. Also like her husband, Evelyn went on to become a teacher, but her specialty was early and childhood education.
When Dick retired from the Philadelphia School District, teaching was still very much in both his mind and his soul. He joined Temple University and worked in the Center for Intergenerational learning. He attended the Center’s annual retreat and was asked if he could fill in for the improv teacher. As a result, he was asked to join the Full Circle Improv Theater, a company of improvisational actors who perform to showcase important issues across the area and the country. Dick taught improv skills through the Center for Intergenerational Learning for years where he found personal and professional happiness.
The Browns have always emphasized the importance of education to their children, grandchildren, and their community. In 2015, Evelyn and Dick received the Chapter Appreciation Award for their community work and commitment to the Delaware county Chapter of Cheyney University. Evelyn is now the President of the Delaware County Chapter and both of the Browns are active in promoting learning for young people.
That wasn’t the only important milestone for Dick Brown in 2015. That year, he also started to feel his muscles weakening. His hand felt different and he was having trouble opening a bottle of water. When he and his wife went to the pool, Dick took off his shirt and Evelyn noticed a lack of muscle. It was more apparent at that time than ever. Evelyn had always known Dick as a large, powerful athlete. She had never seen him feel this way.
Within a few months, Dick would be diagnosed with ALS. This proud man who had overcome so much, inspired so many, and had been such a powerful voice for young people and those in need was now losing his ability to speak and move.
ALS is considered a service connected disease and, as a result of his military service, Dick has been able to receive care from the Veterans Administration. He also is well connected to the services at The ALS Association Greater Philadelphia Chapter. Dick and Evelyn have long been active with the Sharon Hill First African Baptist Church, where Dick served as a Deacon. Now the church community is active in caring for their friend, coming to the Brown home to bring help and love as needed.
For over half a century, Dick Brown has been inspiring people with his words and actions. It has been his life’s work to lift up others after having to lift himself up out of poverty and homelessness. He has used the gifts he has to enrich the lives of people of all ages. ALS can’t take that away from him. Instead, it gives him a new way to inspire and motivate. His new life is, in a way, a mirror for the others he has touched along the way. Now he and Evelyn can see that they did not just inspire people for a day, but they instead have planted seeds of kindness and community, seeds that have grown into proud, strong, smart people in Philadelphia and around the world.
The challenges of ALS are difficult for Dick and Evelyn. They are difficult for anyone. They are facing this challenge the same way that they have faced every tough battle in life — with intelligence, with determination, and with love. And Dick Brown, whether he can speak or not, will do what he’s always done, and that is to inspire the world.