Memphians mourn death of formerly homeless friend to many

Updated: Jul. 24, 2018 at 4:43 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Here's a story my old friend Lee Brown told me years ago:

One Christmas Eve in the late 1980s, STAX recording artist Rufus Thomas heard some loud snoring after parking his car in front of the old Wall Street Deli at East St. and Union Ave. across from where Baptist Memorial Hospital then stood. Rufus tracked the snorts and snuffles behind the deli to find a young Lee Brown snoozing the night away. "Look here," said the world famous soul singer as he roused Brown from his nap, "watch my car for the next hour while I visit my friend in the hospital and I'll take care of you when I get back." So the homeless man stood sentry at Rufus' car that Christmas Eve. True to his word, the smiling singer who gave the world "Walking the Dog" and so many other STAX hits returned and invited Brown to his home to spend the Christmas holidays. Astonished by the offer, Brown readily accepted Rufus' invitation and found himself surrounded by the warmth of the loving Thomas family and their many friends. "Rufus told me he'd been down and out himself once upon a time and he understood what I was going through," Brown explained. That night, Brown says he ate like a king at the Thomas family table.

There are many Lee Brown stories, some 100 percent true, others legend but all kind of sweet in their own way. Is Lee's Rufus story true? Maybe. It's definitely a story Lee repeated to me on several occasions and knowing both the once homeless man and the amazing entertainer called Rufus Thomas, I'd like to believe it's true. Brown, 47, died of sepsis due to a leg infection at his home July 14. I visited with him several times that week, and he told me he had a vision of Jesus a couple nights before he passed away. More on that, as we say on the news, coming up later in this story.

Rufus and Lee had at least one other thing in common: singing! Lee became a regular on the karaoke circuit in Midtown, belting out mostly country tunes with uncommon passion and ability. "This guy could belt out a song like a pro," said Nicholas D. Aiello on Facebook, one of dozens of people sharing memories of Brown on social media after his death. As a homeless person in Memphis from 1987 to 2007, Brown's one treasured possession was a small hand held transistor radio that played his favorite music all day long. Brown memorized countless songs and in a way had been rehearsing for his karaoke gigs at Neil's, Dru's Bar and elsewhere all day, every day. "I used to go to open Blues Jam on Tuesdays when Neil's was on Madison when I played drums," wrote Kyle Ryan on Facebook. "Lee gets up and sings 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay' and absolutely killed it. How is this guy not in a band?" Ryan wrote. At MFD Engine House 11 on Union Ave. where Brown crashed on many a cold night, Lee serenaded firefighters between calls. "Lee sang to us on the bench out front of the station," said now retired Driver Thomas Woodley who Brown nicknamed Sarge. "We got Christmas presents for him and on his birthday: coffee, food, whatever he needed including a pad to sleep or a place to bathe," said Woodley. Singing won the hearts of Brown's neighbors at his last address, St. Peter Manor in Midtown. After moving into the high rise in December 2017, Brown sang some of his favorite carols a cappella from his wheelchair at the Manor Christmas party and instantly became a cherished neighbor. Brown had an abiding love affair with gospel music and even wrote some of his own hymns. The big man was a hit at the Calvary Rescue Dinner a few years back when he sang with all his strength, heart and soul to the delight of then Mayor A C Wharton and hundreds gathered at Bellevue Baptist Church. More recently, Brown has sung with the Praise Team at his home church, Sycamore View Church of Christ, where members shared links to his lead performance in the song "Cry Out to Jesus."

Brown's memorial service will take place at Sycamore View Church of Christ at 12 p.m. Thursday, July 26 where many more stories about the one time Midtown street character are sure to be shared. There was the time, due to a profound sleep disorder, Brown fell asleep while standing up in the crosswalk in the middle of busy Union Ave. as traffic whizzed by. Brown was wearing only a hospital gown because he'd just been discharged from the hospital. Others may tell about the time Lee spent a bitterly cold winter night on a bench in Overton Park where hours of freezing rain failed to awaken the heavy sleeper. Coming upon the sight of a large man frozen to a bench, an early morning park visitor called 911. Firefighters were unable to dislodge the man from the bench on site. Therefore, they loaded Brown, bench and all, aboard an ambulance and only after arriving at the Med, were able to thaw out both Brown and his bench. Then there's the one about the wee hours of another cold night that the homeless man spent on the back porch of Scruggs Lighting store which used to stand immediately east of the Starbucks at Union and McLean. It was so cold, a family of raccoons nestled next to the big guy. Brown says he awakened shortly after his porch guests arrived, "but I was too scared to move so we all just went back to sleep," Brown told me while recounting memories of life on the streets.

Lee Brown might have been the most chronically homeless man in Memphis for twenty years and seven months, 1987-2007. Like many other mentally ill people, Lee shunned shelters for the homeless. Radically independent, Lee reserved the right to shiver through winters or swelter in summer heat, ad infinitum. We had our first encounter in the WMC parking lot, the Memphis NBC affiliate where I've been blessed to work now for forty years. Lee was snoring near the front end of my 1988 Mustang. His head was so close to my front bumper, I thought my car might bop him by just shifting it into gear. So I awakened the big man resting on a patch of grass and invited him to move out of the way. He smiled and we started talking. In the 30 years that followed, I learned that Brown had a dysfunctional home life as a child followed by foster homes, group homes and some time in youth institutions associated with Juvenile Court. As an adult, Brown had no criminal record and became friendly with countless police officers who knew places where he liked to sleep: a tiny cemetery located next to what is now Cash Saver on Avalon, a patch of grass behind the Circle K at Madison and McLean, and the breezeway of Idlewild Presbyterian Church on Evergreen near Union Ave. to name a few. Brown passed a criminal background check in 2009 and went through the Memphis Police Department's 10 week long Citizen's Police Academy when he became a liaison between the MPD and his Midtown community. "What a gentle giant he was, love this guy," wrote Mike Harvey on Facebook. "He had the biggest heart of any one person I've ever known," wrote Lynn Duke after learning of Brown's passing. Indeed, Brown's singing voice, empathetic heart and humor as a conversationalist won him many friends. "Lee touched a lot of lives in this city," wrote Ann Bledsoe via Facebook.

In October 2007, the big man asked this reporter to become his "representative payee," the person responsible for accepting his monthly disability check from Social Security. I agreed to serve in this way but only if Brown would become housed. He agreed (reluctantly). So I paid his rent, other bills and became his personal ATM for more than a decade. Lee was able to rent his dream apartment behind the home of Jeanne and Bob Surratt on McLean. "He kept our house from burning down when a blaze started next door. He called the fire department and then called Bob to let him know there was a problem," Jeanne recalled of her long-time tenant. Later, Brown lived in Caritas Village in Binghamton where he shared a group home with three other men. After the house suffered severe fire damage, all the residents of the group home, including Brown, moved to a nearby apartment which Lee found claustrophobic.

After 10 years of being housed successfully, Brown chose to go back on the streets. It was an astonishing development. I had just finished reading "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion" by Gregory J. Boyle. In that beautiful book, Boyle recounts his experiences with the poor and outcast, mostly Latino gang members in a parish in Los Angeles where he served as pastor. All throughout Boyle's stories, he invites his reader to stop thinking of the poor as people to be served but instead, to become one with them. "Kinship- not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not "a man for others"; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that," Boyle wrote. So instead of "serving" Lee as I'd done for thirty years, I became determined to try and see things from his point of view, to walk a mile in his shoes, so to speak. United with other anonymous Lee helpers who were so inclined, we managed to keep Lee alive and sheltered him as best we could for long stretches as the chilly fall turned to winter 2017. On nights he didn't have a place to stay, he'd sit in 24 hour restaurants like the E's locations on Union Ave or Poplar and chat with the waitresses while helping to keep the premises secure. In the post 9/11 world, we learned the massive challenges of establishing legal identification for someone who managed to live much of his life with no ID. With the help of many, Lee got a Tennessee State ID on December 1, 2017. We tried and mostly failed to find him a new place to live, somewhere he could afford the rent and have enough left over to eat. It was slim pickings as Lee's monthly check was a little more than $700. A homeless ministry offered reduced rate access to long term stay motels or apartments that are located in the some rough neighborhoods. We decided against those options and one day drove up to St. Peter Manor where some of my other friends reside. Julie, the helpful manager, listened as I told her some of Lee's story and asked for an application. Lee used all his considerable charm to make his case during the tenant interview process and presented his brand new state ID. In short order. Lee passed his credit and background checks within a week. He was welcomed as a new resident of St. Peter Manor on December 21, 2017. Now maybe you can see why he sang those Christmas carols with such passion a day or so later. Lee was overjoyed to live at St. Peter's and the community of residents welcomed him with abiding love. It was a sight to behold.

Lee's ability to walk disappeared in recent months. Facebook friends like Patty Crawford and Bill Carson generously donated Lee wheelchairs they no longer needed as Lee's legs weakened. In the last week of his life, Lee's Pastor Josh Ross presented Lee another generous gift. Ross applied for a special gr ant and received a check for $1,000 from Bill Russell Ministries. Having managed Brown's money for many years, I can assure you that $1,000 was like winning the Powerball to our penniless friend. He took his cousins to a favorite restaurant, The Barbeque Shop on Madison and then a shopping trip to Bass Pro Shop where for once in his life, Lee had the money to buy. My call history shows Lee and I talked twenty times the last week of his life. We visited numerous times in person at the Manor in that time. At the very end, Lee was confined to his bed. On Thursday, July 12, Lee told me that he had a vision of Jesus that day and the Lord embraced him for a long time. "He said I would be coming home," Brown told me with assurance, deeply convinced his encounter with the Master was genuine. Lee said he asked Jesus "When?" and that's when the vision and the embrace came to an end, he said. But Lee got an answer to his question a little over 24 hours later. It's another Lee Brown story that you'll have to decide for yourself is true or not. For my part, like Lee's encounter with Rufus, I pray that he's surrounded now by a love so stupendous that he's moved to song.

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