"the effect upon me of my early life"

Last time, I wrote about people to whom I am distantly connected, and ended by mentioning Calvin Coolidge, with whom I seem to have nothing in common, except perhaps a love of dogs. Anyway....

Someone to whom I am closely related--and happily have a great deal in common with--is my maternal grandfather, Dana Earl Brown (26 Jan 1910 - 10 Sep 1984).

Dana Earl Brown c 1928

Googling his name reveals just one fact: he was an occasional lyricist, with three songs registered for copyright with the Library of Congress, all from 1939: Free, White, and 21, (music by Don Rodricks); I'll Never Let You Go (also with Rodricks, who has two other copyrights in 1934); and No  Shadows, (music by Harold Harvey). Aside from the potentially creepy nature of their titles, I have not been able to learn anything else about these songs, or Grandpa's collaborators. (Although there are at least three other Harold Harveys: one an early twentieth century lesser English painter; another a Hershey, Pennsylvania oncologist; and the last a sex offender and death row inmate in Florida. Harold Harvey was the occasional pseudonym of trumpeter Harry James, but I think they must have been different people.) Don Rodricks did provide the words for the song Treasure Island, (music by George Rex, 1938).

I have not been able to locate copies of these songs, but at least one was a (very) minor success; I have a royalty check for $1.58 from Davis and Schwegler. They are a mostly forgotten  music company, notable only for releasing early recordings of the Nat King Cole Trio. In the All Music Guide Review they are referred to as "a sleazy little fly-by-night outfit that soon went bankrupt."

The Internet not offering much, I am happy that there is a great amount of Grandpa Dana's life documented in photos, clippings, and letters that he saved, which I have been looking through with tremendous enjoyment.

He was born 26 January 1910 in Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Clarence Edgar Brown (1 Dec 1878 - 21 Aug 1937) and Coral Mabel Kinman (4 Sep 1876 - 22 Aug 1958). He was their second child, the first, Rex Hugh Brown (born 1 Jun 1905), dying at less than a year old. At the time of Dana's birth, his father was an Insurance Manager, a job he probably got from his father-in-law, William Edwin Kinman (Mar 1858 - 13 Jun 1925), who had a long career in that field. Clarence Brown changed jobs often, at other times being a clerk, salesman in a department store, and an advertising man for a printing company. This peripatetic approach to employment was something he would pass along to his son.

The Browns moved, first to Moorhead Minnesota, where another boy was added to the family: Ray Edgar Brown (2 Jul 1914 - 10 May 1980), then on to Minneapolis after 1915, where they finally stayed. Grandpa Dana attended Bryant Junior High, where he was Class President and served as Sports Editor of the Bryant Times, then Central High School, where he was active in tennis, basketball (breaking his collar bone in the process), and glee club, graduating in 1927. Around that time as well, he formed a musical duo with his best friend, Cliff Nash, performing at local amateur nights as "the Kinky Kids." One hopes the name was due to their curly hair, and not the material....

Sometime in the late 'twenties, the Browns moved back to Moorhead, Minnesota, and Grandpa Dana began attending Wheaton College (in Illinois), where he lettered in football and tennis, and again wrote for the school paper, offering up everything from hard reporting to groan-inducing jokes as filler. He also came in second place in the school talent show, with a poem called "Beauty." He did not graduate, returning to Moorhead by 1930, where he began courses with the Minnesota College of Law night school, to mixed results. Like his father, it seems he did not know what he wanted, or could not stick to one thing for very long, although the seeds of many of his life-long interests were already apparent: sports, writing, music, civic involvement, and bad jokes.

In January 1930, Grandpa received the following reply, from New Scotland Yard, London S.W. 1:

With reference to your letter of the 13th December, I am directed by the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to inform you that he regrets that he is unable to offer you an appointment in the Force, nor is he in a position to advise you as to any other employment in this country for which you may be suitable.
I am, Madam,
Your obedient Servant,
[signed] H G Gilbert"

Clearly the chaps at Scotland Yard  couldn't have been that good as detectives if they mistook Grandpa Dana for a woman. Although he must have attempted to clarify things, as there is another rejection dated just three weeks later, pointedly addressing him as "Sir." Although they have his name as E. Dana Brown.

In May 1931, he received the following reply, from O. O. McIntyre, nationally known for his "New York Night and Day" daily syndicated column (reaching fifteen million readers as his peak), and a former publicist of Florenz Ziegfeld:

"Sorry, I already have a most satisfactory chauffeur. But, here's hoping you make a good columnist."

The brevity is not surprising, as McIntyre reportedly received three thousand letters a week from his fans (and--apparently--aspiring potential employees). McIntyre handled his correspondence and other writing from his bed, beginning after breakfast and continuing until early evening, always with the curtains drawn. He claimed he disliked sunshine.

Anyway. 1931 was a busy, if restless, year for Grandpa.  He was the Managing Editor and contributor to the newly-formed Fargo [North Dakota] News, a weekly newspaper serving the Fargo-Moorhead area. He was a Committeeman for Troop 39 of the Boy Scouts of America. He regularly submitted poems and song lyrics to places as diverse as Christian Business magazine and DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, the successful song publishers. With titles like "Longing," "Song of Melancholy," "Consolation," (from a woman's point of view and submitted as Diane E. Brown!), and "Lady Bugs & Dreams," it is perhaps not surprising that he received numerous rejections. Is it too much to think that the titles suggest his own unhappiness?

Also in 1931, he took a lengthy road trip to Hollywood, California, with another friend, Fred Cook, where they lived for two months before returning home. Although Grandpa kept an entertaining journal of their trip (including roadside tennis games while waiting for help with the inevitable breakdowns; numerous detours; and picking up an apparently never-quite-sober minister in Texas, who rode with them as far as Taos, New Mexico, before vanishing in the night...), he never explains his motives for going west, or what prompted his return.

At any rate, by late 1931, he had a job with the Strutwear Knitting Company, in accounting. Hardly the place for a man with big dreams. But there was more going on... and I will let Grandpa tell it in his own words, in a poem he wrote for my grandmother on their twenty-fifth anniversary:

The place was Minneapolis,
The time was '33.
A minister named Porter
Stood there with you and me.

And, as I slipped that flimsy ring
Upon your shaking hand,
There was no "Great Depression"
For we were feeling grand.

I didn't miss a day of work,
We needed every buck,
Just meeting you in '32
Was my best stroke of luck!

We didn't have much money,
So, we spent more time in bed
Than might have been the custom
If we'd been rich, instead.

So, it really wasn't surprising
That late in '34
We had our little Beverly
To fondle and adore.

And then, in 1935
We took our biggest journey
I chugged to San Leandro
With Beverly, and "Myrnie."

"Myrnie" was Myrna Margaret Severin (6 Nov 1907 - 12 Jun 1997), youngest of three daughters of John Jacob "Jack" Severin (11 Jul 1878 - 2 Jan 1965) and Isabelle "Belle" Runser (21 Oct 1881 - 30 Mar 1960). Grandma Myrna was born in Redfield, South Dakota, and by 1932 was living and teaching (having received a degree from Moorhead State Teachers College) in Fargo. I would love to know how my grandparents met; perhaps one clue is that Grandma's high school diploma recognizes her four years of literary study. Did they meet at a poetry reading? Had she seen something of his in the Fargo News"  It was a brisk courtship, as they were married the next year, on October 21 1933, in the home of Grandpa's aunt and uncle, by the aforementioned Rev Porter, a retired Presbyterian minister.

In 1934, my mother was born, and the following year led to another change in the Brown household. According to Elizabeth Faue, in the "Minneapolis Labor Review:"

In the summer of 1935, Farmer- Labor Party member Oscar Hawkins marveled at the happenings in Minneapolis. Everywhere, discontented workers brought the labor movement to life. Even the Strutwear Company, the public enemy of labor unions, was faced with a strike. As Hawkins reported, “the Strutwear Knitting Works had a sudden and lively strike ten days ago — still on. It is so hard to get the straight of the various conditions. The employers tell the newspapers their story... Stories of the workers are different.”

Although I have no record of my grandfather's participation--or not--in the strike, I do know his reaction: the Browns packed up and moved to northern California. The lived first in San Leandro, then San Francisco, where their second child, my uncle Bruce, was born, then Daly City, and finally, Oakland.

628 Hillside Blvd, Daly City, California
My great-grandparents, Belle & Jack Severin, with my mother and uncle.

Grandpa Dana's jobs were just as numerous:

I worked in hosiery awhile,
Then sold it on the road....
The old man sold potato chips,
This followed frozen food.
And then worked on the waterfront,
In a six month's interlude.

A purser with United
I was in '43.
we flew the South Pacific
Till it saw enough of me.

Then, into business for ourselves
With Kenny and with Lee,
In looking back it seems quite odd
We chose a grocery.

The grocery, G & M Grocery, on Foothill Blvd in Oakland, was a joint venture with Walter Rensch, and two relatives: John J Severin, and Kenneth E Richards, Grandpa's father-in-law and brother-in-law, respectively. I have not been able to discover what connection Rensch had to our family, except that he was a neighbor of my grandparents. There was also a pharmacy, Kay Dee Drug Stores, in Alameda owned by the foursome. In 1948, the grocery was sold entirely to Rensch, and Grandpa Dana and Kenny became the co-partners in Kay Dee.

Of course, it wasn't all work in the '40s. Grandpa was also a volunteer Civil Defense Warden, an award-winning member ("Trophies too, by gosh. That guy Dana!") of the East Oakland Racing Pigeon Club (he also raised pheasants and mandarin ducks), President of the East Bay Merchants Association and member of the Elmhurst Lions Club, and an amateur actor with the Oakland Community Players, appearing in such productions as Date with Judy, Goodbye Again, and as "the male lead in the psychological comedy-drama Guest in the House."

Note the autograph of Shirley Temple Agar [her then-husband] on the OCP card.

From a review by Harold Peterson, under the headline "Dana Brown Steals Show":

As a rule we do not like theatre drunks. They either overdraw their roles into messy caricature or underplay badly. However, Harvey Wilson, as acted by Dana Brown proved the exception. Mr. Brown pulled out all stops without overdoing the role and practically walked away with the second act.

DEB, standing on right,  and his supporting cast.

Yet despite all this activity, he is still thinking bigger: there is a reply from the Royal Siamese Embassy from 1948, referring his request to conduct some kind of business endeavor in Siam to another office. Whether through "partner complications," disappointment with his Siamese scheme, or just having been bitten by the acting bug and hoping to make it in Hollywood (as actor? songwriter? something!), the Browns uprooted--for the last time--and headed south, to Long Beach, California.

To be continued....


  1. Wow, this was so amazingly cool to read. I love hearing about our Grandparent's lives, so much of it sounds like it's out of a novel or movie. The fact that they all moved to the same towns and went into business together speaks volumes about how close they must have been.

  2. I know! What I think is so interesting is that my Grandpa Dana had a brother, Ray, who lives just a few hours away from us the whole time I was growing up, and I never even heard about him, let alone met him. I would love to know what caused the rift, since the Severin-side bond is so strong. Grandpa's brother had three daughters who were cousins of my Mom's, from whom she occasionally got Christmas cards; they apparently still live in Southern California. I met a son of one of theirs online who was going to do some sleuthing, but he never got back to me.... Which makes me think it must be something really juicy!

  3. Loved reading this post. Would like to read more. Are you planning on setting up any subscription mechanism, such as Google followers?

  4. Thanks, Jacqi! Your comment motivated me to get back to work on this blog; my original intent was to do a posting every week, but personal events kept me from adding anything since July! Look for a new post today or tomorrow. As for subscriptions, I'm not really that much of a technology guy, so I'm not sure how to set that up, but I believe you can "follow" this blog.