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Students Bid Fond Farewell to Brown

By Jonathan Richmond

Few professors retire to such displays of affection and, indeed, love as Howard Brown. But, then, Howard never set himself the goal of winning the Institute Screw. Instead, in his gentle way, he has been a friend and comforting presence to generations of MIT students ensconced at night in the concrete confines of the Student Center.

The tributes flowed in, literally from around the world. Writing from Israel, Reuven Lerner ’92 admitted that “Howard influenced me more than some of my professors, which in and of itself teaches us quite an important lesson.” Howard provided Lerner the therapy needed to get his thesis done.

“Every night, like clockwork, Howard would come in and give me a wonderful break from the monotony of hacking and debugging. We would talk about my work, his cats, and opera, among other things. He was always kind, warm, and interesting, and never failed to put a smile on my face.”

Indranath Neogy ’98 sent his comments from England: “Seeing you drop by the darkroom, or even just in the hallway late at night, sometimes when I was stuck there, sometimes when I was leaving, it always cheered me up...”

Greg Kuhnen ’00 spoke of Howard’s intimate relationship with The Tech. “I remember him being very moved by the Philip Gale story. He asked me if he could keep a copy of the front page from that issue. It really hurt him that someone with so much ahead of them could throw it all away.” Howard also “seemed to like seeing us do chair races, even though he was going to have to clean up the black marks we left behind on the floors.”

You will have gathered by now that this friend of all students was a custodian -- a great one, at that. And in his typically modest, unassuming, generous way, Howard would indulge members of The Tech on production nights, waiting until the issue was done before coming in to clean up our mess.

Kevin Simmons ’98 reflected on his friendship with Howard, which developed during many late nights in the Technique darkroom. “You have always been there for me when I’ve been sick, locked out of the office, or just in need of a friendly face to cheer me up. Everyone I can think of that knows you is fond of you, Howard. You are a truly gentle man, and have great taste in music, too. I wish you happiness in the days to come, and want to remind you that visits at 2 a.m. would be great. I’ll miss you.”

On June 7 The Tech held a retirement party for Howard. Howard was there on time. There were goodies on the table, and a cluster of admiring faces had gathered around.

After a few moments of silence, Howard told us about his time at MIT, how he worked at Lobdell, then Baker House, then the Student Center. He reminisced on the generations of students he’d befriended. And then there was a pause once more. “And when I die, I want my ashes to be scattered on the oval outside. That’s what I want to be looking at: the Student Center.”

Another silence, then it was time to give Howard his gift -- the lovingly-prepared plaque and a pile of CDs, to provide more music for his retirement. “Oh Man! Holy Toledo,” said an amazed Howard. “You know what my roommate told me. You’d better stay at home because they’re going to make you cry. And you know what --he was right! Excuse me. I’ll be back. I’ve got to go out in the hallway and cry.”

As I set off up Massachusetts Avenue at 2 a.m., I remembered Howard popping in to chat long after the issue would be over and I’d often be by myself doing some work for my dissertation. We shared a love of opera as well as laughter, and his visits invariably provided the adrenaline to keep going for another few hours.

Who says MIT ever needed a Charm School when its students and a janitor can befriend each other in such natural and unselfconscious ways and leave such deep impressions on each other’s lives. Lets leave the airs and graces to Harvard.