A Life's Story
July 23, 2022
Globe-trotter with patient eye for detail
Jean Brown, 94, spent 30 years at Free Press in society, women's, TV sections
By: Katie May
Ninety countries, and not a single souvenir. On her world travels, Jean Brown never even took a photograph.
“She didn’t want any encumbrances,” says Brown’s childhood best friend and travel buddy, Joyce Lamont Hughes.
Over the course of their 90-year friendship and 45 years spent criss-crossing the continents together — aboard an icebreaker in Antarctica, in a hot air balloon over the Serengeti, living in a tent in the mountains of Nepal — Brown never cared much for possessions. She valued loyalty, and was true to herself and her friends.
The friends who remember her now describe themselves as her family. “If you were a friend of hers, you’re a friend for life,” Hughes says.
Brown died July 9 in Winnipeg, at 94, after a 30-year career as a newspaperwoman, and decades spent volunteering in support of Indigenous rights and women involved in the criminal justice system.
Born Jan. 31, 1928, the only child of a dentist, Brown grew up in River Heights and developed a soft spot for the underdog.
Meticulous, dry-witted and proudly anti-technology, Brown had a depth of compassion her straightforward, unsentimental and sometimes stubborn nature couldn’t disguise.
“She had enormous patience,” Hughes remembers, fondly referring to her friend only by her last name — a grade-school signifier of superior friendship that persisted their whole lives. With no siblings or children of her own, Brown wanted to help people who “didn’t have a break in life,” Hughes says.
She started her career at the Winnipeg Free Press in May 1952, after years of teaching figure skating classes to children and adults.
Hughes already worked at the Free Press, and suggested her friend apply. Brown was hired as a “society reporter,” and her first assignment, she would later tell a frequent visitor to her retirement home, was to cover an event at the Royal Lake of the Woods Yacht Club, outside Kenora, Ont.
“She said, ‘And I knew nothing about it! But I went and I just got tossed into the mess and had to do the best I could — and I think I did,’” recalls Gillian Robertson, a family friend.
Within a few months at her new job, Brown’s work started to delve deeper. She penned a feature in September 1952 about the careers and contributions of highly educated immigrant women in Manitoba under the heading, “The Old World Enriches the New.”
Brown loved the work, took pride in her writing — and spent quite a bit of time being social while putting together the newspaper’s social pages.
In the early 1960s, a colleague introduced her to his wife and children. From then on, Brown was a part of the family, recalls Susanne Olver, who knew Brown for 60 years. They spent summers at Brown’s cottage at Falcon Lake, with the small, unreliable motorboat Brown christened the “Damn Nuisance.”
“She became an auntie to my children, and we have been close friends ever since,” Olver says.
Brown had a special affection for Olver’s daughter, Caroline Fawcett, who referred to her as a second mother. Fawcett takes credit for softening Brown, a staunch non-cat person, into the kind of delighted pet owner who ultimately colour co-ordinated her condo in shades of dark brown, tan and blue to match her beloved Siamese cats.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, dementia set in, friends say. But prior to that Brown kept herself in great physical shape. She chose her retirement home for its proximity to walking trails and completed long bike rides daily well into her 80s.
Her job, excellent memory and constant need to be neat and organized, combined with her curiosity, meant Brown was full of stories. She’d recount attending a luncheon with Queen Elizabeth, watching in amazement as the British monarch reapplied her lipstick right at the table.
“She was the most interesting person,” Robertson says.
More than once, Brown made friends laugh retelling the story of her sealskin coat.
“She wore it every winter, but one day on her way into the office, a Free Press janitor called out, ‘Oh, Miss Brown, I can see what you’ve been doing a lot of!’ She looked down at the rear end of her coat, and all the fur had been worn off the butt,” Fawcett remembers with a laugh. “She thought it was funny.”
For many years, Brown worked as a society page editor and women’s editor. She retired as TV editor of the Free Press in 1982, just as computers were beginning to change the newspaper business. She wanted no part of that movement, friends say.
In her time off, Brown volunteered with the Elizabeth Fry Society — an accomplishment she was probably most proud of, friends say, and worked as an archival assistant at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Brown served on several boards, including for Mount Carmel Clinic and the Indian and Métis Friendship Society of Winnipeg.
And every year — sometimes twice a year — she’d meet up with Hughes in a far-off country, generally up for anything as long as she could stay clean and organized. Their first trip was to China in the early 1980s. After they “exhausted Asia,” they moved on to European river cruises, Hughes says, describing Brown as an ideal travel companion because they were “opposite in every way.”
Their cancelled plan for 2020 was a trip to Dubai, with Brown then 92. They never considered themselves too old, Hughes says. “You tend to forget that. We never thought about that.”
A few years ago, Hughes says she started to doubt they had many more adventures left in them. Brown wouldn’t hear it.
“I said, ‘Well, I think this is our last trip.’ And she said, ‘Well, why?’ So, of course, we just kept on going,” says Hughes, who lives in Texas.
“It wouldn’t matter if we’d spent years apart. If I went up there now and Brown was still there, we’d be exactly the same.”