Venturing: Mike Brown did it his way

Posted Wednesday, September 21, 2011 in Features

Venturing: Mike Brown did it his way

Allen D. "Mike" Brown

By David D. Platt

Mike Brown, who died on Sept. 11, was a survivor. At 81 he had outlived a generation of muckraking Maine journalists like John Cole and Peter Cox, co-founders of the old Maine Times, as well as the late Aime Gauvin, Russ Wiggins and others now dead.

It was a generation of newspaper reporters who really looked into things; supported – for the most part – by their publishers and editors, they dug up stories on scandals, conflicts of interest, trends no one had noticed, activists and obscure people who were making a difference in our lives. Their reporting went far beyond State House handouts and press conference pronouncements, and each contributed to Maine’s daily and weekly discussion in individual ways.

Mike Brown wasn’t really an investigative reporter. He loved to talk with people, but he didn’t spend his time digging through budgets or looking for smoking guns. He may have worked the phones at times, but I think of him instead as a man of strong opinions, strongly expressed. A courageous combat Marine in the Korean War, Mike wasn’t afraid of anyone. And that’s what emerged when he became a journalist all those years ago. As Bill Langley of the old Maine Times told me once in a casual conversation about Mike, “he’s the only guy in the Maine press corps with any balls.” Langley, no slouch himself in the courage department (ask the then-proprietors of the Weld Telephone Co. if you doubt me) knew his man and what made him tick. Mike knew how to kick ‘em around.

He kicked me around from time to time. The fact that he was my summer next-door neighbor in Saturday Cove never stopped him. Over the years he wrote uncomplimentary columns about three of my employers, while I was working for them: the Bangor Daily News, the old Maine Times and the Island Institute. I’m not saying all his licks were undeserved (some of them were). When he felt it necessary to get something off his chest, the fact that I was through the hedge didn’t matter. Suck it up, Dave.

Like John Cole and a few other opinionators I could name, he never let the facts get in the way of a good story. At least one of his attacks on the Island Institute was based entirely on a two-year-old federal form (public record) listing salaries of top managers there. Most of those listed had left; the information in the form was way out of date; as a source it was virtually useless. The resulting column had the desired effect, however -- it made people at the Institute really mad, which was just what Mike loved to do. He saw us (I was working there) as a bunch of out-of-state elitists, a crowd the Belfast-born Mike disliked. Ironic, since at Saturday Cove he found himself surrounded by such folks because that’s who owns coastal property these days. Suck it up, Mike.

Interestingly, he never channeled his apparent resentment of rich out-of-staters (don’t mind me; it’s just a Mike-like characterization) into rage, radicalism or reform efforts. If someone were to advocate opening up the Maine coast to the masses he’d have been on the barricades opposing it as a Commie plot.

Mike was deeply conservative, you see. His passion was for the coast as he’d known it when he was growing up on the shore of Penobscot Bay. He disliked the way it had changed, the loss of self-sufficiency, the declining ability to earn a living by harvesting natural resources. It was the befouling of Belfast harbor and upper Penobscot Bay by the chicken companies that prompted his successful lawsuit against them, making Mike’s early reputation as a crusader. I doubt that he troubled himself much about corporate America or the chicken companies as its local representatives – what bothered Mike was the crap that came out the companies’ pipes and floated down the bay. And he made ‘em pay!

I said he was my neighbor. I’ve known Mike since I was a child; really, ever since he and Mary bought the former Wing-Wallace cottage and made it their year-round home. It’s a beautiful place, all porches and shingles, although I’ve always wondered how they’ve kept it warm in the winter. Since he came to Saturday Cove Mike has fished a string of lobster pots and a highlight of my kids’ growing up was the chance to go out lobstering with him. I’ve shared a lot of beers with Mike and enjoyed a lot of lobster dinners at the house. He stored his boat on our lawn for many winters. He lent me lots of tools and we told each other dozens of stories. He was one of the pleasantest people I’ve ever known – hard to believe, I know, given Mike’s reputation as a hard-nosed newspaperman. I can’t think of any political topic on which we agreed.

It was Mike’s legendary neighborliness that made it impossible for me to dislike him. Oh, I tried from time to time when he wrote something that was patently untrue, but when my employers implored me to “do something” to get him to stop saying things about them, I just couldn’t do it. And it wouldn’t have made any difference anyway.

Now it’s all over; no more columns except one left over for next month’s National Fisherman. The obits have been as positive as obituaries should be, remembering Mike for his generosity, friendliness, love of animals, ability to invoke the quainter aspects of life in Saturday Cove. I want to remember him that way too, and I do; but it’s just as important (and fair to Mike, who would prefer his unvarnished version) to remember his warts as well as his gentler features.

All the best to you, Mike – we’ll miss you and your way of looking at the world. And as the years go by we’ll appreciate you more and more.

David D. Platt was editor of old Maine Times and Working Waterfront.

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