UPDATE: "Celebration of Catherine Knutson Brown Butler at The River House
Fond memories of Cathy Brown, who once ran as a proud Democrat for St. Johns County Commissioner in 1998, receiving 15,468 votes (39.60%) in District 2 (we elected Commissioners in single-member Districts then, before snollygoster County Commissioners slammed the door on single member districts, empowering the formidable feculent forces of clear-cutting land-raping secretive investor-scalawags).
Cathy was fearless and courageous. I first heard of her from a reporter from another county, who sang her praises. (Cathy confirmed the story. Cathy once refused to knuckle under to a group of misguided men who threatened to stop delivering meals on wheels for the Council on Aging -- redolent Republican retaliation for her off-site activities in her personal capacity, helping a youth group to teach girls about contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies).
Cathy was a constant presence on my Facebook page, cheerfully chiming in her support for just causes.
We did not always agree (as on Mayor Joe Boles' mediocrity and mendacity, Sheriff David Shoar's corruption or the Sunshine Bus system's inadequacy).
But she was a force of nature, and dearly be loved, and I treasured her service on our Historic Architectural Review Board, where she was often a breath of fresh air on overdevelopment issues.
We miss you, Cathy Brown.
From St. Augustine Record:
Cathy Brown moved to St. Augustine and rolled up her sleeves. Her legacy lives on today
Cathy Brown, former executive director of the Council on Aging, 1999-2013, who died Sunday, was unrelenting and transformative in her advocacy for senior citizens in St. Johns County.
Brown, 75, died at the Bailey Center for Caring, after a brief illness, according to her daughter Kate Brown. Brown’s immediate family also includes daughter Emily Link, her husband, Todd, and their children, Abigail, and James, who live outside San Antonio.
“She saw only people’s strengths and enlisted them to overcome their own barriers,” said Kate Brown.
A celebration of Catherine Knutson Brown-Butler’s life is planned for Oct. 6, at River House on South Marine St., time to be set later.
10 Who Make a Difference:Cathy Brown-Butler's lifetime of service in St. Johns County
Celebrating a milestone:St. Johns County Council on Aging honors people over 95
County Commission Chairman Henry Dean had known Brown since he and his wife moved to St. Johns County in 1985 when he took the job of St. Johns River Water Management district director in Palatka.
Dean said he followed her “wonderful” work as COA director and they connected about every other month during that time.
“From her early years in Vietnam (with the Red Cross) to her many years of service in St. Johns County, she was always advocating for the elderly, the less fortunate, those in despair. She was doing the Lord’s work.”
St. Augustine a turning point thanks to sorority sister
A native of Pinellas County, she arrived in St. Augustine from California in 1993 after the death of her first husband, Jim Brown. By then, she had raised her two daughters to adulthood.
“Mama was reevaluating her life,” Kate said. “She called on her (Florida State University) sorority sister, Susan Harry, who immediately said, ‘Come to St. Augustine!’” Less than a month later, “she took her position on the waterfront overlooking St. Augustine and began to see how she could help,” said Kate.
Perhaps, too, Brown’s year in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, after college graduation, came to mind.
“They had a motto on a sign at headquarters: ‘For those who fight for it, life has a value the protected never know.’ That was seared within me," Brown once said. "I promised, ‘If I came home alive, I would show up, take notice, not be reserved, and be a life builder.’”
Within months, Brown initiated a volunteer sign-up center through St. Johns County with an office in the Clerk of Court. A weekly listing of volunteer opportunities was published in The St. Augustine Record.
She visited the American Red Cross chapter office and, having served in Vietnam with the Red Cross, offered her services. There she met then-executive director Angela Cox and learned of more community needs. She learned that the United Way office needed a permanent location. She secured the building at Weeden and Bridge streets.
She was invited to join the Rotary Club of St. Augustine, one of the first women Rotarians.
Kate related her mother’s interest in the Olympics (stemming from Los Angeles as a volunteer in 1984). “When she heard that the Olympics were coming to Atlanta, she was curious about the Torch path. As a result, she was instrumental in changing the torch path to travel up A1A, through neighborhoods, across the Bridge of Lions, with a festival along the Bayfront and ceremony on the Fort green.”
Failed County Commission run another turning point
She was unsuccessful, though, for the County Commission District 2 seat in 1998. Unfazed, she kept moving forward. In 1999, she staffed the COA dispatch in the event of evacuation of the frail and fragile citizens during Hurricane Floyd, when it looked imminent that the Category 5 hurricane was headed to St. Augustine.
While she was serving on the COA board in 1999, Chairman Joe Boles saw her as the ideal person to be the COA’s new executive director. The board agreed and she moved off the board into working for the board.
Under her leadership, the COA’s River House opened in 2010. The project was in partnership with the St. Johns County Commission and blended public and private funds to fulfill her vision of the “community’s living room, a country club for seniors.” Seed money had come from the sale of the home of the late Mary Peck, a longtime COA member. Peck’s vision was a dining room for seniors on the Matanzas River.
Brown learned of senior citizens in her hometown, Largo. “I was 6 years old,” she said in a 2021 Record article about her selection as one of The Record’s 10 Who Make a Difference in St. Johns County. “My mother, Sara McIntosh Knutson, took me along when her group visited the two Pinellas County homes for the elderly (then segregated). The ladies would bring cookies and visit the residents. I would pass the trays and sing for them.”
On Tuesday, Boles reflected on Brown’s impact.
“Cathy Brown was a bright light not just as executive director, but to me personally,” he said. “She was a tireless advocate for the elderly, a visionary and brought her excitement to every task.
“I loved working with Cathy. I loved laughing with Cathy, and I really loved watching her caring for the frail and fragile member of our community day in and day out for decades. I look forward to raising a glass with her in the great hereafter. So, look out God. Here comes Cathy Brown.”
Boles had said, in the 2021 article about Brown, she “remade the Council on Aging in her own image: fun loving, creatively caring, and always compassionate. If Cathy Brown told you she needed some money for a project for the ‘frail and fragile elderly of St. Johns County,’ you knew the project was a good one, and you jumped on her bandwagon because the ride was always a great one!”
In 2003, Cathy Brown married Warren Butler, a Jacksonville financial advisor, who died in 2020. She called him her sounding board for her vision of COA’s future. In addition to River House, those key accomplishments were remodeling the former county health department on Marine Street into the COA’s modern office, and the first “senior” hub with special events, activities and a café.
The Sunshine Bus Company was her vision for public transportation for all. County Commissioner Jim Bryant was her key advocate. The commission adopted the plan and, with Brown, partnerships evolved with the county, state and federal governments.
Successor keeps ‘Cathisims’ in focus
Becky Yanni succeeded Brown as executive director in 2013.
“Cathy was very inspiring. As a leader, I feel she inspired us to do our very best and to reach our full potential,” she said. “She had a talent for seeing potential in other people.
“We called her The Mayor of Fearlessville. If she wanted something for the seniors, for the agency, she would ask and ask and not be intimidated. She would say, “Know what you are there for, the purpose.”
The Sunshine Bus Company required her “fearlessness.”
“It was a tough sell,” Yanni said. Her task then was getting the speakers bureau set up for the program to build community support, to spread the word.
Brown’s legacy continues, Yanni said in many ways. River House is the community living room she envisioned. Sunrise Rotary Club meets there along with other groups. Even the younger community knows River House. It is the scene of high school proms, Yanni said. And Brown continues to inspire the staff today through Yanni.
“We had this thing we called Cathisms: Cathy’s practical, pithy, philosophy. We still have them today. For example, Cathy would say things like: ‘Do you know the reason you are here?’ And then, she would say, ‘If you don’t know the reason you are here for, then what are you here for?
“Another one, ‘Stop and think. If this day was your last day on earth, would you be happy at the way you spent it? Does this day have joy? Do you feel like you are making a difference?’ That would always make me think.”
In that 2021 interview for the 10 Who Make a Difference, Brown offered advice on getting involved. This, in part, sums it up:
“There is an old saying — ‘Somebody ought to do something …’ about whatever the problem might be. Well, YOU are somebody!”