A Life: Bertha Brown ‘was a quiet backbone in so many areas’

Bertha Brown as pastor of the Timothy Frost Methodist Church in Thetford Center, Vt., in 2004. She was appointed to the position in 1994. (Family photograph)

Bertha Brown as pastor of the Timothy Frost Methodist Church in Thetford Center, Vt., in 2004. She was appointed to the position in 1994. (Family photograph) Family photograph

Bertha Brown in a portrait taken while she was in college in 1949. (Family photograph)

Bertha Brown in a portrait taken while she was in college in 1949. (Family photograph) family photograph

Bertha Brown in a 2022 photograph. Brown and her husband Elmer Brown ran E.C. Brown's Nursery in Thetford Center, Vt., a business they started in 1967 that their son Kevin continues to operate today. (Family photograph)

Bertha Brown in a 2022 photograph. Brown and her husband Elmer Brown ran E.C. Brown's Nursery in Thetford Center, Vt., a business they started in 1967 that their son Kevin continues to operate today. (Family photograph) Family photograph


Valley News Correspondent

Published: 02-25-2024 10:16 PM

Modified: 02-28-2024 10:23 AM

THETFORD CENTER — From her early years at Norwich Elementary School to her ministry later in life, Bertha Brown lived her faith of service every day and never wavered from her principles of dignity, acceptance and compassion for all.

Brown felt a calling from God early on, said her son, Kevin, and between her 30 years working in the family nursery business, she taught religion, was a director of religious education, earned her credentials as a minister in her 60s and served her congregations nearly up to her death on Jan. 17 at age 96.

“She told me at one time she got a calling from God as a young teenager, and she knew from that point on that was the direction she was going to go,” Kevin said.

Kevin and his wife, Robin, said Brown was quiet and modest, and never one to talk about her work — which included volunteering to support seniors — or seek recognition in the community.

“She was a quiet minister of the Lord, and she didn’t need accolades,” Robin said.

Added Kevin, “We didn’t know a lot of what she did until we found documents after she died.”

Those who knew her best echoed those comments.

“We didn’t know half of what she had done because she was not someone who talked about herself,” Kirsten King, who with her husband, Curtis Richardson, lived next to Brown for more than 30 years. “She was a quiet backbone in so many areas.”

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The Richardsons remember how Brown was there to support them in a time of tragedy when their 10-week-old son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

“We didn’t have a church and Bertha and Elmer, particularly Bertha, were right here helping us out,” Richardson said. “She was not a pastor at the time but helped us to have a service.”

What impressed Robin about her mother-in-law, and something she heard from others at Brown’s celebration of life memorial service, was her accepting and non-judgmental character.

“She was selfless and was always thinking of others,” Robin said. “It did not matter who you were, where you came from, what you had done in your past. She was willing to accept you, (to) try to help you be the best you could be and help you through God’s work.”

Brown was born in Norwich in 1927 to Comery and Mattie Cook and grew up attending Norwich Elementary School before graduating from Hanover High School.

Reading from things she wrote down about her life, Robin said Brown remembered wanting to be in “church school” more than elementary school.

“Even in elementary school, she wanted to be in Sunday school,” Robin said. “She availed herself to any opportunity for ‘church school,’ including summer camps, conferences and teaching Sunday school in college.”

After high school, Brown attended Keene State College and then transferred to the University of Vermont where she earned her bachelor’s degree in teaching. She then embarked on a career teaching religious education in large churches in Virginia and Rhode Island before moving to Concord to become the director of religious education for the New Hampshire Conference of the United Church of Christ with more than 180 churches.

Brown’s life pivoted away from her religious teaching, though not her faith, when she married Elmer Brown in 1964 in Connecticut. He was a widower with toddler twins, Kevin and Kirk. The family moved to Thetford in 1967 and opened E.C. Brown’s Nursery on Route 113 in Thetford Center. The family-run business was on the same property as the Browns’ home, and Bertha worked in the house as the treasurer and bookkeeper.

In the late 1980s, Christopher Wilson, 35 at the time, moved to Tunbridge from Pennsylvania, where he worked in a small nursery and landed a job with the Browns after a cousin told him it was the best one in the area. Wilson remembers Elmer telling him that the college students who worked for him were returning to school so he would need some help. During a walk around the nursery, Wilson remembers stopping and commenting on a rare rhododendron.

“Isn’t that a Yakushimanum?” Wilson remembers saying.

Sufficiently impressed, Brown hired Wilson and, 37 years later, he is still working there for Kevin, who now owns the business. Elmer died in 2019.

Wilson, who became the person at the nursery that customers would talk to about trees, shrubs and plants, said he got to know Bertha over the years because the cash register was in the house, so he went in the house for every sale.

“Bertha was extraordinarily honest, and she was very easy to get along with. Very kind and compassionate,” Wilson said. “She treated me like I was another son.”

Wilson maintained his friendship with Brown and would take her shopping in her later years. But he never did her shopping.

“She never brought a list. She remembered everything and went up and down the aisles, picking out what she needed,” Wilson said. “I offered to pick things up for her, but she didn’t want me or anyone else to do it.”

When her sons were older, Brown was asked to become involved in the fledgling White River Council on Aging, where she served as chairwoman for eight years beginning in the late 1970s. When not working at the nursery, Brown volunteered countless hours advocating for seniors in the area. She was instrumental in getting the Bugbee Senior Center in White River Junction built and expanding the work of the Council on Aging. She also helped start the Meals on Wheels program in Thetford and was chairwoman of the Southeast Council on Aging in the early 1990s.

Brown hired Eleanor Zue, a social worker at the Bugbee Center, in the early 1980s and described her work as “visionary.”

“I don’t know where it would be were it not for Bertha,” Zue said about the center while giving a nod as well to many others who were part of the group that established the center. “It is a place where so many people’s lives have been enhanced and touched.”

Zue agreed that Brown had a quiet and reserved manner outwardly but had a determined side as well that provided leadership on senior programs and initiatives.

“She was very able, confident, principled and energetic,” Zue said. “She was not intimidated by challenges and ready to do whatever it took; a real consensus builder and a no-nonsense, get-this-to-happen sort of person.”

Like Kevin and Robin, Zue said she found out more about the awards and recognition Brown received for her volunteer work at her memorial service.

“She was doing all sorts of things I had no idea about,” Zue said.

When she was in her 60s, Brown, who had been preaching in local churches for several years, returned to school and obtained her credentials to become a Methodist minister.

In 1994, the Bishop of Troy Conference of the United Methodist Church appointed her pastor of the Timothy Frost Methodist Church in Thetford Center.

Kevin said his mom “brought one church (Timothy Frost) back to life” and then retired from there after 10 years as she neared 80. But retirement was not for her.

“She started by doing a few services at the Union Village Church but never stopped,” Kevin said.

When COVID struck, the small congregation of less than a dozen began attending services in Brown’s home.

“She was just a really non-judgmental person who valued her work with the church,” Kevin said about Brown’s style as a minister.

Gail Dimick, now retired, succeeded Brown at the Timothy Frost Church, which later became the United Church of Thetford after merging with the church North Thetford.

“She was very loving, very positive and cared deeply for the church,” Dimick said. “For me, she was always an incredibly supportive and valued colleague.”

The decline in church attendance over the last few decades troubled Brown as fewer adults and children went to services regularly, Dimick said.

“That brought a deep sadness for her and that was something she worried about.”

Even when her age made it difficult to hold services, Brown’s commitment to helping others remained as strong as ever.

Wilson, who worked at the nursery, said he would deliver bags of foods collected at the weekly service in Brown’s home to the nearby food shelf.

“I was amazed at how many bags of food this congregation of half-dozen people collected,” Wilson said.

Reflecting on his mother’s long life of service in the church and her community and her love of family, Kevin said she taught him important lessons.

“She was a mentor and she listened,” Kevin said. “And she was sounding board for me later in life and was always there for me.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.