Abe Brown, longtime Tampa educator and minister, dead at 83
TAMPA - The boys on the Middleton High School football team knew when they were up to no good. Like hanging out at the local pool hall or sneaking a smoke on the back stoop of an empty house. Someone else knew, too. Their no-nonsense coach: Abe Brown. And, inexplicably, here he would come from in the distance, driving his car right to the scene of their mischief. "It's like he had some kind of radar," recalled Lloyd Mumphord, a 1965 graduate of the once all-black high school in Tampa who would go on to play 10 years in the National Football League. "He made it his business to make sure we stayed straight," Mumphord said. "He found summer jobs for us to keep us out of trouble and always kept tabs on us. And it worked."The iconic Brown - an educator, pastor, prison evangelist, mentor and community servant - died today at St. Joseph's Hospital after his third battle with cancer. He was 83. Robert Blount, who serves as president of Abe Brown Ministries, the prison outreach that Brown founded in 1976, said his father-in-law's health had been going downhill for the past month. But in typical Abe Brown fashion, "he hung on until we were ready to handle it. We had to do our grieving and come to terms with it before he would leave us." Brown leaves behind Altamese, his wife of more than 40 years, three daughters, five grandchildren and countless lives influenced by the words he lived by: "Be a giver, not a taker. Live and lead by example." Mumphord, who lives outside Lafayette, La., said Brown's lessons stayed with him all his life. Nothing comes easy, the coach would tell the students. Work hard and play fair. Success just doesn't happen. It requires a lot of effort. Those were lessons Brown learned early in his own life. He was born in Belmont Heights, delivered by a midwife in a small clapboard house on Harrison Alley. It was so far from where the city's white residents lived that folks called it Montana. The nation was on the cusp of the Great Depression, but Brown's family was already used to being dirt poor. His father left when he was 3; his mother, Emma, took the bus to Palma Ceia to clean houses for white people. She always expected the same work ethic from her children. "Never let the sun catch you in bed," she would tell them. As a youngster, Brown would go to the farmers market to pick up bruised fruits and vegetables that had fallen off the trucks. What his family didn't eat, he sold. When he got a little older, he took the nickel streetcar ride to Cass and Franklin streets then walked eight miles on Florida Avenue to Sulphur Springs, where he would shine shoes for a used-car salesmen. On a good day, he made $1.75. Brown played football and basketball at Middleton. Florida A&M gave him a football scholarship; it was the only way he could afford college. In Brown's senior year, a professor told the students to put their schooling to good use and contribute to society. Brown never forgot that advice. He returned home, where he taught and coached at several Hillsborough County schools. On weekends, so he could afford a car, he waited tables at the Tampa Yacht Club. During his 15 years as an administrator at Chamberlain High, his stern demeanor earned him the nickname "Mean Dean Brown." He was a stickler for rules and respect. Education, he told The Tampa Tribune in 2007, is the "ladder to success. You can't make it without it. The prisons are full of young black men because they took another route." In addition to serving the school system for 40 years, Brown's Christian faith led him down two other paths. He was ordained after deciding he no longer could ignore God's calling. From 1993 to 2007, he was pastor at First Baptist Church of College Hill. His other passion was the prison ministry. After one his former students shot and killed a cab driver in the mid-1970s, Brown blamed himself, wondering where he had failed in teaching the boy about football but not about life. He dedicated himself to intervention, inside and outside prison walls. He became the first black minister to lead services and evangelize in Florida's penitentiaries. For years, he traveled by bus with other volunteers to the state's prisons, delivering a message of faith and hope in his trademark mellifluous voice. Today, his ministry also operates two transitional homes for ex-felons and outreach programs for families of offenders. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, a major supporter of the nonprofit, will host the ministries' benefit concert Oct. 28 at Idlewild Baptist Church. "That's the work that will always stand him apart from everyone else," said Monsignor Laurence Higgins, one of Brown's close friends. "He took care of those who need it the most. It wasn't the most popular choice. But Christ calls us to serve others, even the least of these, and Abe lived by that." Higgins, pastor emeritus at St. Lawrence Catholic Church, said Brown was the definition of a saintly man, dedicated to his community and his faith. His legacy will not be words, but the fruits of his deeds. "One of our finest citizens," the priest said. "Now the 'Big Coach' has called him home. He's done the work that God wanted him to do." Willie Dixon worked in the school system with Brown. But then he was busted for drugs and ended up serving two stints in prison. When Dixon heard his former colleague was visiting Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, he gathered several of his fellow inmates to attend the chapel service. More than three decades on, Dixon can still remember how many men attended the service. "There were 21 of us," he said. "I know that because Abe had $21 in his pocket and gave each one of us $1. Then he went home broke." Now Dixon, who committed his life to Christ in 1975, runs a community foundation and makes his own visits to prisons, giving his faith-based testimony. He said he will never forget how Brown never abandoned him - not when he was in prison or after he was released. Funeral arrangements for Brown are pending. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting contributions be made to the Live the Brown Legacy Memorial Fund, which benefits the prison ministry. The address is: Abe Brown Ministries, PO Box 11453, Tampa, FL 33680. Dixon said that's just what Brown would have wanted. "He has meant more to the prison system than anyone I know, period," Dixon said. "His influence has made the difference in so many not returning to that situation. He spoke with humility and with sincerity. And people listened."
Reporter Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613.