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Jonathan Cleveland Brown

Died: April 12, 2016

At Yale I met and learned from a host of famous professors and some junior faculty that were astounding. The small French department that hosted my major was filled with outstanding lecturers and teachers. Philosophy had Paul Weiss, History, Hajo Holborn, and Political Science, Brad Westerfield. They all left their marks. But in retrospect the person who had the most influence on me at Yale was my roommate sophomore year, Jonathan Cleveland Brown.

Jono, as I and other close friends called him, taught me something fundamental—a love of writing and, eventually, some aspects of the craft itself. Jono was a natural writer. He had grown up in a journalist family in Connecticut, where his father was the publisher of the Danbury News-Times. He could synthesize a political event or a historical period into a riveting short article with his eyes closed. He didn’t even need to watch the typewriter keys he was clacking as the article came to life.

His specialty was the two-page essay, which is what most week-to-week assignments at Yale in introductory courses called for. His subspecialty was summarizing the issues he was addressing for a poli-sci course or philosophy seminar with a pithy historical or literary reference. Plato’s Myth of the Cave was his most frequent reference, which he managed to make succinctly relevant to assignments in several fields of study and several periods of human evolution. In each case, it was as if he was letting his readers in on a special secret.

From Yale Jono and I went on to the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “Annenberg” was a very new and small graduate school, and very multi-disciplinary. It housed faculty who were anthropologists, cyberneticists, filmmakers, economists, statisticians, TV critics and social psychologists, among others. Again, it was writing that unified Jono and me, with both of us (along with John Clippinger, another Yale classmate) enrolling in an eight-student writing course taught by Hiram Haydn, a former Editor-in-Chief of Random House.

Jono’s next application of his writing skills was in Chad, Africa, where he and his first wife, Ellen, an anthropologist, were posted in the Peace Corps. Once or twice a month, my wife, Pat, and I would receive in the mail a “Best of Brown” letter from Chad, where Jono was trying to improve chicken-rearing productivity, not something he could claim a specialty in. Mostly the letters described chaotic attempts to resettle the chickens after they would break out of their coop. Jono’s letters gave us more laughs than any of the day’s stand-up comedians managed to do.

Of course, the laughter had some very serious implications. Jono left Chad wanting to enroll in the Harvard Business School, which he did, and then worked for 35 years on development programs, mostly in Africa during his time at the World Bank. He was a very dedicated reformer and development proponent, always pushing the envelope without claiming political correctness. We remained best friends throughout his adult life, and I will never forget his willingness to push for change, whether on civil rights or in eradicating poverty and AIDS. And I will never forget his writing, his generosity, his humor.

Kas Kalba, Class of 1966