For William Neal Brown, the full circle of a full life

For William Neal Brown, the full circle of a full life

William Neal Brown
William Neal Brown
During the last year of his life, William Neal Brown, a longtime professor of human growth and development at Rutgers, spent part of each day doing what he had done –and taught hundreds of other people to do – for half a century. He observed people and noted how they interacted with their environment. He noticed problems with those interactions and came up with ways to solve or at least manage those problems.

Blind in one eye, unable to speak easily, and unable to write at all, he seemed to think of himself as more of a consultant at SAGE Spend-A-Day Eldercare in Summit, New Jersey, than as a client.

“If he thought they [the seniors] were having difficulty dealing with something, or couldn’t express themselves, he would recognize that and make a suggestion,” said Ellen Greenwald, the center’s director and one of Brown’s former students.

Brown, who died April 17 at the age of 90, taught at the Rutgers School of Social Work from 1956 until his retirement in 1989. Born in the administration of Woodrow Wilson in 1919, he attended the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009.

William Neal Brown served with the famous Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
Along the way, he was denied the valedictorian’s role at his high school because he was black, starred as a debater at Hampton University, served with the famous “Tuskegee Airmen” during World War II, became a practicing social worker, debated Malcolm X on the subject of integration, and taught social workers how to be social workers.

Brown was one of 300 former Tuskegee Airmen who attended President Obama’s inauguration. He was extremely frail by then, confined to a wheelchair. His longtime associate, Suzanne Zimmer, drove him from the home they shared in Millburn, New Jersey, to McGuire Air Force Base in Burlington County the day before the inauguration, then joined him on a bus ride to an air force base near Washington.

Bundled in his wheelchair against the bitter cold, Brown, along with his comrades, was hosted, fed, and celebrated throughout the trip. They rode from the air force base to the Capitol in 10 white buses with “Tuskegee Airmen” printed on their sides. “On each corner, there was an airman or soldier or policeman on duty for security, and when they saw those buses, each one saluted,” Zimmer recalled. “My God, I could have cried.”

At Rutgers, Brown taught a course in individual casework, a class with a rich potential for boredom, because it relied on “canned” cases – cases from books and articles, according to Renee Weiss, a licensed clinical social worker who graduated from the School of Social Work in 1968. “He was a brilliant educator; he made the people in those case histories come alive,” she said.

Laurice Walker was already a caseworker in Atlantic City for the state’s child welfare agency when she was studying for her master’s of social work degree one day a week in the early 1960s at Rutgers. She was warned not to take Brown’s section by some of her colleagues, who told her that Brown would be tougher on her because she was African American. Walker ignored the advice.

“What I enjoyed most, I think, was that he was so dedicated and so sincere and wanted to make sure that we future professionals had what it took to be able to do our job,” Walker recalled. “I was mesmerized by some of his lectures. He made his own life story so real. I think the most enjoyable time that I spent at Rutgers was in his class.”

Brown insisted that all clients be seen in the context of their lives, not as a collection of symptoms. “Neal did not have much truck with the unconscious,” Weiss remembered. “He focused on the person in his family, his group, his social milieu. And long before holistic medical care came into view, he taught viewing the client holistically.”
The grandson of a former slave and son of a steelworker in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, Brown grew up in poverty. He graduated first in his high school class, but, according to Zimmer, was denied the usual honor of being valedictorian because of his color. He went on to the Hampton Institute, now Hampton University, in Virginia, where he excelled as a debater. He served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II as a special services officer whose job was to boost the morale of the black pilots training in Tuskegee, Alabama. After the war, Brown earned his M.S.W. degree at Columbia University and his doctorate at the City University of New York and worked as a clinical social worker for the Veterans Administration. He supervised social work students, including students from Rutgers, in their field placements. In 1956, he joined the faculty at Rutgers as an assistant professor.

In 1961, he substituted at the request of students for a Rutgers School of Law professor, C. Clyde Ferguson, in a debate with Malcolm X on the subject of integration. The debate was held in the auditorium of the Rutgers School of Pharmacy, then in Newark; it lasted for nearly two hours and 20 minutes. Years later, Brown remembered the fiery Malcolm with affection and respect. “I think he's not only an unusual, but a very bright guy,” Brown said in 2005. “I liked him very much. He didn't have the benefit of education. He had no education beyond what he got on the streets of New York, but he has parlayed it. He used what he learned, wherever he learned it.”

Brown himself never stopped learning, observing, and teaching. His influence ran from his own experience to that of his students and, in the end, came back to him in the person of Ellen Greenwald, Class of ’73.

Greenwald doesn’t think Brown remembered her from her student days, but she certainly remembered Brown. “He knew so much about theory and understanding of human beings, and how to observe people,” she said.