I had begun working in the courthouse in a dual-position as a deputy district clerk under Mary Lou English and as a deputy county clerk under Rebekah Scott.
Two Willie Browns worked under Sheriff Jim Hodges in the sheriff’s department at that time, Little Willie, a wiry, energetic captain of the jail, which was still housed on the upper floors in the courthouse, and Big Willie, a patrol deputy who was a giant of a man comparatively.
Thus the name – but Little Willie’s oldest friends called him Boo.
Little Willie died last week and oh, what a loss his death is to the community. In death, he became a legend, with a legacy of service – to his country, to his community, to his race and to mankind.
Willie was born on the “Santone” Ranch and grew up working cattle with the best of the black cowboys immortalized by Louise O’Connor in her book, “Cryin’ for Daylight.” Prodded a little, he would tell stories of his childhood, of riding horses to a one-room school as a youngster and herding cattle on the prairie where he learned from his elders.
The tales of his growing-up years mesmerized all of us, mostly because he never looked old enough to have lived through that tough era.
He loved the rugged cowboy life but his destiny was larger.
Willie joined the U.S. Army and became a career soldier, serving his country before returning home to serve his community. Years ago, Willie told me he had wanted to be chief of police, where he worked before moving to the sheriff’s department.
Sheriff Jim Hodges made Willie jail captain and he was meticulous. Years later, after he retired from the county, Willie was called upon many times to help out at the jail.
As far as I know, he never burned a bridge. By that time, I was working as a journalist and he taught me a valuable lesson.
At a commissioners meeting many years and several sheriffs ago, the court extolled the work at the jail in an extraordinary way. I, in turn, followed suit and wrote a glowing passage in the story about the jail passing a state inspection.
Willie, in his always kind way, asked me why so much praise was bestowed for doing the job people are paid to do? The lesson stuck.
Willie led the movement to bring back the old-time Juneteenth Celebration, and the event flourishes today. He led the Barefield School Project to restore one of the few buildings left of the black school and turned it into the Barefield Learning Center. He spent many hours alone restoring the building, or with volunteers he was trying to rehabilitate.
One of his goals was to restore and mark all the graves in Community Cemetery. The Community Cemetery Association is one of the most active groups today, sponsoring the Martin Luther King Jr. Walk and Juneteenth.
In every volunteer organization, he never was content to simply be a member but always assumed a leadership role.
He was a charter volunteer at Good Samaritan Ministries, a member of the Historical Commission and a board member of the Historical Society. He was a champion of Ranch Heritage Days and a member of the board of the Lions Club.
He was also a faithful Christian and a member and deacon of Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Willie was a past commander of VFW Post 6290, the chaplain and held just about every office, working tirelessly among a handful of faithful workers.
The last time I saw Willie was at the Veterans Breakfast on Veterans Day. The post awarded him a plaque for his lifelong service. He flashed that unmistakable smile as the audience rose to applaud.
I didn’t know how sick Willie was until my husband, Ron, returned home after moving a phone away from his bedside. He was plagued with a problem most of us will never have.
Willie’s phone rang continuously. Countless people who loved him... people whose lives he had touched, kept calling, each one checking on him, wishing beyond hope that he was improving.
Willie’s beloved Mt. Pilgrim Church could not possibly hold the crowd so his family moved the funeral service to the community center.
The Patriot Guard and his fellow post members lined the hallways. Standing at attention, they bestowed full military honors to a community icon.
But the memory that I will cherish forever is Willie, the proud soldier in his honor guard uniform, carrying the flag in community parades from one end of this county to the other.