J.C. Brown with staff in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy NRECA)
J.C. Brown with staff in the 1980s. (Photo courtesy NRECA)

Every organization has its colorful characters, men and women who are still talked about years after they have retired. NRECA’s J.C. Brown, editor of RE Magazine and the old Rural Electric NEWS Letter from 1973 to 1993, was just such a character.

A high-wattage intellect, an absurd sense of humor, and a big heart combined to produce his colorful personality. A talent for editorial column writing spread his legend around the electric co-op community and beyond.

After Brown shut off his electric typewriter for the last time, NRECA collected the best of the “Conversation Pieces” he wrote for the NEWS Letter in a volume titled Twenty Years of Wit and Wisdom.

In the book’s 32 columns, Brown writes about the Rural Electrification Administration (REA), electric co-ops, and Washington politics and media, of course, but he also gives baseball, a 1988 flu epidemic, scam artists, the Eagle No. 2 pencil of his school days, and small town milkmen their due. One column is titled, “Dear SOB.”

The proof that REA was a successful federal agency, he wrote in an April 1990 column, was that “you and I can go to almost any inhabited place in the United States and find reliable electric service at a reasonable cost, settle down and do business, or just relax and watch TV.”

On November 18, 1988, he observed, “Government is a bother, and bureaucrats are often, well, bureaucratic…”

After J. Peter Grace, of the infamous Grace Commission, recommended privatizing REA and then wrote to the NEWS Letter, Brown retorted: “August is when psychiatrists close down for a month, leaving their clients on their own, therefore I shouldn’t be surprised by irrational appeals…”

On August 30, 1985, the subject was co-op loyalty: “Rural people have learned to be wary of itinerant roofers, termite exterminators, and snake oil salesmen. The promises of power companies whose ownership control is several states removed are just as suspect. If it is a good deal for the power company to take over the co-op, why is it not a good deal for the members to keep it?”

Public greed never failed to get under Brown’s skin. “The failure of government to put reasonable restraints on money manipulators made magazine cover boys of the truly greedy, who came to take billions from the economy and cost a lot of people their businesses and jobs,” he wrote on January 31, 1992.

In his baseball column on June 4, 1982, he said he had noticed that people who wrote bad poetry and liked baseball also liked the REA. Then he told the story of the unknown pitcher who drifted into Elkin, N.C., in overalls one Sunday afternoon a long time ago, pitched 13 scoreless innings against the visiting HiToms, “getting stronger as he went, and [then] when the fog threatened to end the game along about midnight, [he] went to the plate and effortlessly won his own game with a home run.”

J.C. with Paul Wesslund. (Photo courtesy NRECA)
J.C. with Paul Wesslund. (Photo courtesy NRECA)

J.C. and other people in the stands that night took up a collection for the phenom, turned it over to him, and then “watched him amble off into the fog toward the river,” never to be seen or heard from again.

J.C. always kept the co-op consumer in mind. “Whatever we do is useful only if it serves the welfare of the families at the end of the line,” he reminded his readers on August 14, 1987. Co-ops were “their main hope for an improvement in a dismal economy. Who else is strong enough and has a broad interest in rural America to do anything for them?”

He got into the business at a time when animosity between co-ops and investor-owned utilities was red hot, and his rhetoric on the subject stayed that way throughout his career. He devoted his column on December 17, 1976, to power company executives: “I recall being seated in a church pew beside one, who cordially introduced himself. As soon as I identified myself, he reddened and sped off to another pew with his somewhat startled wife.”

J.C.’s last “Conversation Piece” was published on June 18, 1993. He recalled a late 1950s visit to a rural North Carolina home on the day after it had been electrified. He noticed the new radio, electric stove, refrigerator, freezer, and washing machine.

But it wasn’t until the woman of the house opened a cabinet and took down an electric iron that he really understood the significance of the occasion. She looked at it like it was “a fragile jewel, and asked me to show her how to use it.

“Never in her life had she used an electric iron. That more than the washer or the freezer or the radio was what electricity meant to her. REA? REA was not a federal agency. It was an electric iron.”

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