Smiles and tears marked the memorial of Berkeley High School Vice Principal denise brown at the Berkeley Community Theater Thursday.
Students, teachers and community members walked into a performance of Tchaikovsky’s “Elegie” by the BHS Orchestra and shared memories of brown, whose life was an inspiration for thousands in the school district and beyond.
The vice principal and dean of discipline, who wrote her initials in lower case letters, died Feb. 2 at Summit Medical Center in Oakland following complications from knee surgery that sent the Berkeley Unified School District community into a state of shock.
“We grieve her loss but we also celebrate her life today. denise brown was one of those rare people who was a hero to our community,” said Berkeley High principal Jim Slemp. “Her life was about making the world a better place to
While friends marveled how brown had a knack from making friends with people from all walks of life, students spoke of how they made up excuses to “go and chill with db,” as she was known, in her classroom.
“Kids fell sick so that they could be hugged by her, teachers made up assignments so that they could walk into denise’s office and get her signature,” said Kalima Rose, a longtime friend of brown’s. “People wanted to gather and linger in her presence. She recognized every person for who he or she was.”
Rose spoke about brown’s ability to write plays that celebrated everything from racial diversity to unpopular vegetables.
“Ms. brown helped us to find creativity. To find ourselves,” said a Berkeley High senior who was going to pursue acting in New York. “It was Ms. brown’s after-school drama class and her production of The Wizard of Bezerkeley that inspired me and hundreds of other kids to perform. We were always awed by her ability to write a new play every year. Her long dresses and headscarves made her look like an African goddess. She treated us like equals and yet indulged in frivolous girl talk with us at any given moment.”
At times when a somber mood descended upon the auditorium, the Rev. Dwight Webster called upon the audience to “loosen up a little.”
“That was what denise would have wanted. That was the kind of person denise was. Firm yet gentle and fun. A real life Nanny McPhee,” Webster said, referring to the fictitious nanny who with discipline and a little magic transforms the lives of the children.
“There is an old African proverb which says that it takes a village to raise a child. denise brown was that village,” said longtime friend Anne Wagley, who works for the Planet, at the memorial.
The purple hues in the auditorium paid tribute to brown not just as an influential teacher and administrator, but also as a mother.
Bay Area dancer Maia Siani performed with the Berkeley High Dance Troop to Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” a tribute brown’s daughter Sarah Real had choreographed.
Berkeley High has set up a scholarship fund for Sarah, a senior at Berkeley High, to help her through college.
Both Le Conte Elementary School, where brown taught kindergarten, first and fourth grades for over a decade, and Berkeley High’s Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA), where brown was vice principal, are in the process of setting up a joint fine arts scholarship program in her honor.
Michele McGee, a sophomore at AHA, spoke about how brown had changed her life.
“She was tough on me,” she said. “But it was only after I got out of trouble that I realized why she had been that way. Ms. brown helped me to become a better person and for that I will be forever grateful.”
brown received proclamations from the City of Berkeley, the County Board of Education, the County Board of Supervisors, the State Assembly and Senate. Feb. 15 was declared denise brown Day in Berkeley.
“The City of Berkeley was very fortunate to have denise at Berkeley High,” said Julie Sinai, senior aide to Mayor Tom Bates. “We could always count on her for not just a straight answer, but also one that was compassionate and caring. This proclamation honors her creativity, accountability, reliability and passion. She was a role model for parents and children and was visible and accessible on campus at all times of the day.”
“She reached out to parents and students in ways most of us can’t,” said county schools Supervisor Sheila Jordan. “Alameda County honors this great leader today and pledges to continue her work.”
The resolution from California state senator Don Perata described brown as a person who “lived life to the fullest” and praised her for her work with at-risk children, the Berkeley High Youth Court and the small schools.
The California State Assembly was adjourned in denise brown’s honor on Friday.