Hall of Fame honorees always helped less fortunate

The late Richard “Steve” and Ruth Brown will be inducted Sunday night into the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida Inc. Hall of Fame.

Special to the Guardian
Published: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 7:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 7:12 p.m.

The three who will be inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Commission of Florida Inc. Hall of Fame this year have spent many years fighting for the causes the slain civil rights activist espoused while living their lives committed to helping the less fortunate.

Father John D. Gillespie, Ruth Brown and her husband, the late Richard "Steve" Brown, will be honored at the commission's 26th annual Hall of Fame Banquet at 6 p.m. Sunday at the Paramount Plaza Hotel in southwest Gainesville.

The theme this year is "Renewed Commitment: Acceptance, Justice & Education."

Attorney Harry E. Johnson, president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Memorial Foundation, which is in charge of erecting a King memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., will deliver the keynote address.

The banquet also will include the presentation of the 2011 Edna M. Hart Keeper of the Dream Scholarship Award to Eastside High School senior Taonga Leslie.

Alachua County Commissioner Rodney Long, founder and president of the King Commission, said this year's group of honorees is "certainly a distinct group." He said one thing they share in common is that they have made tremendous contributions in the area of social justice.

He said the Browns hit the ground running when they moved to Gainesville in 1991. "They were a dynamic duo, and when you saw one, you saw the other," Long said.

As for Gillespie, Long said: "Ever since I can remember, he was engaged with the St. Francis House, either as an organizer or advocate for the homeless in our community."

Gillespie served as the pastor of St. Augustine Catholic Church and director of the University of Florida Catholic Student Union for nearly 30 years before becoming pastor late last year of San Sebastian Catholic Church in St. Augustine.

During his time in Gainesville, his involvement to guide and help others spanned beyond the parish doors. He was a longtime board member of the St. Francis House, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in downtown Gainesville, and was a major opponent against city-imposed limits on feeding the homeless at the St. Francis House.

Kent Vann, executive director of the St. Francis House, told The Gainesville Sun last year that Gillespie will be sorely missed by many in Gainesville.

"He's been instrumental in helping to keep the issues alive. ... He's part of the blocks that helped build St. Francis House," said Vann. "He's been with us for a long time, and he's grown with the agency. He will be missed by not only the people at St. Francis but also the community. He does a lot of things for a lot of people."

Gillespie, 64, was ordained on May 13, 1972, as a priest to serve the Diocese of St. Augustine, which currently includes 51 parishes and nine mission churches in 17 counties of Northeast and North Central Florida.

The Browns were both born, raised and educated in Prince George's County, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C., and were married for 67 years before Richard Brown died last year at the age of 88. The couple moved to Gainesville after they retired because one of their daughters, Diana McPherson, and her family lives here. Their other daughter, Renee Pindell, lives in Maryland.

McPherson said her mother is "still spunky, though a little frail" at age 86.

Ruth Brown worked as a statistician and educator during her professional career. She participated in the 1963 march on Washington, D.C., where King delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. She also marched with King and others on "Bloody Sunday," which took place on March 7, 1965. Television images of the brutality police inflicted on the marchers attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., that day is widely credited with providing the impetus for Congress passing the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Her list of firsts include becoming the first black bank teller in the D.C. area, first black to serve on the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission and first black female mayor of Fairmount Heights, Md.

McPherson said her father was just as active as her mother. She said he and other men used go out at night and paint over "white only" and "black only" signs in the D.C. area in 1962. She said although her father was an educator and principal most of his professional career, he did not hesitate to attack discriminatory practices in the education system.

The Browns also were very active in Gainesville for many years. Ruth Brown served as the president of the Alachua County branch of the NAACP from 1995 to 2001. Some of the issues she focused on included concerns with the Gainesville Police Department, fair housing and education.

Richard Brown served on the board of Catholic Charities and was active in prison ministry. He also was president of the 2001 Habitat for Humanity Board of Directors and chairman of the education committee of the local branch of the NAACP.

McPherson, an attorney, said she remembers her parents telling her and another family member, also an attorney, "to help the less fortunate."

She said it was "second nature" for her parents to be involved with issues facing the community.

"They would be the first to say ‘We are just doing our duties,' " McPherson said. "They were a great partnership."

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