Jim Brown has given a lot to his adopted home town of Grand Ridge throughout much of his 99 years.
On Friday, Brown’s 99th birthday, Grand Ridge gave a little something back.
Brown, a World War II veteran and the former mayor, fire chief and seed businessman in the small farming community just south of Ottawa, was honored with a drive-by parade by the Grand Ridge Volunteer Fire Department and countless friends who wanted to express their gratitude for his service to the town.
“I guess it’s a big day,” said Brown, who was taken by surprise by the celebration. “Did I ever think I’d live to be 99? Lord, no. My mother lived to be 95 and a great uncle of my dad’s lived to be 102, I think, down in Rantoul. … It’s been very interesting, all these years.”
Brown, the oldest of eight children, is one of more than 150 descendants of his parents. He said he is proud as a first grader growing up in the small Champaign-area town of Ludlow, he actually rode a horse to school. In second grade, he rode there with his younger sister in the saddle and he behind. The next year, the two pulled a cart with their younger brother in it.
Another of his earliest memories was a fire that destroyed the family home in 1929, forcing them to stay in a “garage” for several years until they could build a new house.
Eventually, his family moved to Penfield, where Brown attended school, then St. Bede Academy with a college scholarship. Because it was too far to travel home, he stayed with a classmate who lived in Grand Ridge, and there he met his future wife, Dolores McCormick. They married in 1946.
In December of that year, Brown entered the Air Force and was stationed at a base near Fort Worth, Texas. While he was working as a teletype operator, sending coded messages all over the world, his wife ran a day care center for the service men’s families.
He later served at Scott Air Force Base in downstate Belleville.
When his tour was up, the Browns moved to Streator, where Jim worked at Williams Hardware and had a job making concrete blocks, before settling in Grand Ridge in 1952.
“In my time, I’ve met a heck of a lot of people. I could be 1,000 miles from here and I’d still run into somebody I knew.”— Jim Brown, of Grand Ridge
Along the way, he served as mayor of Grand Ridge and spent time “flying by the seat of my pants” as chief of the city’s volunteer fire department, the development of which he listed as his greatest accomplishment, along with his family.
All the while, Brown worked as manager of the Walter Seed Company (later bought by Cargill), overseeing the care, detasseling and harvesting of more than 5,000 acres of seed corn.
After his retirement from that position, he worked for his neighbors for several years, helping run their farms.
Through this year, his daughter Christine Benckendorf and granddaughter Theresa pointed out, Brown has been retired for more years than he worked after leaving the service.
Through the middle of this week, Brown was more than halfway to his personal record for birthday cards, hoping to best the 105 he got for his 80th birthday.
“It’s a nice town,” said Brown, who with his wife had five children and served as foster parents to several others. “It’s not the same as it used to be. I used to get around a lot more than I do now and I knew everybody in town. Now I see kids riding bikes and I don’t know them. … but there are a lot of good people here.
“In my time, I’ve met a heck of a lot of people. I could be 1,000 miles from here and I’d still run into somebody I knew. … But these are great people here.”