Herbert Brown and the Open Road

Herbert Brown defies expectations. A 67-year-old senior who looks at least a decade younger, Brown volunteers four days a week at the Urbana Senior Center, helping Director Susan Hofstra with programs like fitness and art, socializing with visitors, preparing lunch and coordinating field trips.

He started volunteering at the Senior Center on his days off, prior to his 2010 retirement.

Many days, he arrives from his home near Fort Detrick on a Can Am Spider RT, its surround sound on. Brown enjoys listening to all sorts of music, but Mark O’Connor and Joshua Bell are two of his favorites. You just might hear classical and bluegrass drifting behind his impressive trike as he pulls into the parking lot.

Brown has ridden a motorcycle for 50 years. He rode in the District where he grew up and after Vietnam when he became a D.C. police officer, settled in town with his wife and then moved to Prince George’s County with his family. And he kept riding after retiring from the police force in 1989, settling in Frederick to give his youngest of five — fraternal twins who were then three years old — a good school system and a more diverse community, and again through his return to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Justice, where he continued to work as a security officer for 19 years until his second retirement in 2010.

For Brown, riding his motorcycle is almost a spiritual experience, especially on Frederick County’s pastoral byways. He cranks up the sound on stretches of quiet roads where the only listeners are the cows.

“I’m an artist and I’m looking at God’s artwork and trying to get various ideas for things that I do,” he says. “It’s like flying on the ground but your craft is like a cloud. You just flow with it and sort of relax with it. I love it.”

Sometimes he stops to sketch the beauty of what he sees. Brown has been an artist for more than 50 years and he has an artist’s appreciation of life. He considers himself well met by the variety of people and places he has found.

Even though Brown says he will never again live in D.C. because of the District’s lack of representation in Congress, he loves the city like the insider that he is.

He spent his childhood walking and riding his bicycle through its streets with friends, sometimes traveling from his home in Northeast to the National Zoo at Woodley Park. He still remembers riding through the ford in Rock Creek Park near the back entrance to the zoo to cool off after a long ride, and walking with his friends to museums, stopping for lunch at whatever friend’s house was along the way. Summer passed in days of exploration with the friends often outside from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

These days, sometimes he gets on his motorcycle and rides through D.C. just to see the changes. He is proud of the city and feels that the changes are for the better.

When he returned from Vietnam, he took the test to become a police officer, but his military service didn’t influence his choice of career. “My mother said I always wanted to be a police officer,” Brown remembers. “I don’t know. Maybe I did. … It was perfect for me because I get bored easily. Overall, it was a great job.”

When he started as a patrol officer in 1969, Brown was assigned to the Second District, which included the Palisades area. In those days, most policing was done on foot. Contact with the precinct was made hourly through a call box.

The Palisades area was very quiet then. “People would say, ‘Oh, he’s in Second District. All they do is chase squirrels all the time,” Brown smiles. One of his first calls involved a bat in a resident’s home.

The Palisades area was also very white, and residents were not used to seeing an African American officer on patrol. At the time, each of the three squads assigned to the area had only one black officer. Brown remembers calling into the precinct one night and having the dispatcher ask him if he had been patrolling a certain street. Brown answered yes, and the dispatcher said, “I thought it might be you.” A resident had called concerned that a black man was impersonating a police officer.

Brown shrugs and says he understood that it was her culture or mindset. “There wasn’t the diversity there that you have now,” he says.

Another night, he and his partner were called to a residence to take a police report. The maid who answered the front door asked them to enter from around back. “My partner was offended, thinking it was because of my race. He told the captain that if Brown can’t go in the front, I don’t go in the front. But I think it was something else. The maid didn’t want the neighbors to see police officers entering the home.”

Brown explains that he always tried to put himself in the other person’s place and understand where he or she was coming from, all the while holding fast to the job that he had to do. He knew that the best thing he could do for people often was just to listen to them. He advises that the two most important prerequisites for police work are education and an understanding of people.

Liking people helps, too.

Brown’s beat extended from the Palisades downtown to 14th Street NW. He found the Vietnam protest era exciting, and delighted in the variety of human behavior that he saw, like the long-haired man who shared his hot dog with his dog, taking a bite and then extending it to his dog for a bite. “The guy’s probably a lawyer now,” he says.

He remembers the May Day Protests in 1971. “I went to work on a Monday and I didn’t get to go home until that Friday. We stayed on buses. We slept on cardboard on the sidewalk,” he says.  Residents would bring officers something to drink, and occasionally the officers went to hotels to shower and change clothes. Days were spent on a bus, playing cards to pass the time and watching the activity on the streets, just trying to inspire calm through their police presence.

“It was really an exciting time,” he says. “Ninety percent of the protestors were young college kids, flower kids, and they weren’t mean. We didn’t have a whole lot of problems with them.”

“They changed this country,” he emphasizes. “They changed the attitude.”

Brown has changed it, too, most recently with his caring presence at the Senior Center. He has learned to knit and strike Chinese dance moves. He plays board games with other veterans, and helps with the arts and crafts projects that Susan Hofstra organizes. Some of his drawings, emotionally charged portraits, hang on her office wall.

“He was going to throw them away,” Hofstra explained, “and I rescued them.”

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