Librarian keeps local history alive with vision and passion
Fam Brownlee has seen it all. The man has lived through seven decades of events, from the JFK assassination to the Vietnam War and eventually to 9/11 and today’s world. He has been a hippie, a civil rights worker, a serviceman in the Navy and a teacher, but most of all he is a historian. He lives and breathes history from his office in Forsyth County Library’s North Carolina Room.
Brownlee says he inherited his storytelling abilities from his grandfather, who was a farmer and rural entrepreneur.
His mother grew up in Davie County and was a descendent of Scots who settled in Currituck but moved inland when they were struck by hurricanes. His father’s family came to Charleston, South Carolina around 1750 and eventually settled in Friendship, Georgia.
His father grew up in Atlanta and was a Seabee at Kanton Island during World War II.
Brownlee grew up in Winston-Salem and attended Reynolds High School, where he said he was not engaged as a student and was timid.
“When I was in high school I had to get someone to ask a girl for a date for me because I was too shy to approach them,” he said.
Brownlee headed into the Navy, and chose to go to San Diego for boot camp in order to “go away as far as possible.” He asked to be stationed in a naval spy ship since they usually spent a lot of time in port. Instead he was assigned to Adak, Alaska between the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. He would later be grateful for not getting his wish.
“One day in Adak we were working and the intercom says, ‘all people with top-secret clearances come to the message center immediately,” he said. “I thought, that’s crazy, why? So I went to the message center, I walked in, and there was an officer standing there who had heard me complaining earlier about not getting this ship based in Japan, and he said, ‘Brownlee read this little message here and tell me how you feel about not getting that ship.’ And the message was from the commanding officer of the USS Pueblo saying we’re under fire by North Korean gunboats. Help, help, help.”
Brownlee was set to be stationed in Bremerhaven, Germany in 1968 but was assigned to Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam at the last minute when President Johnson decided to pull reserves out and deploy regular troops to the country.
“We get shot at, but it wasn’t a real dangerous job,” he said. “It was a real hectic job. We put in 18-20 hours a day, six days a week and half a day on Sunday.”
Brownlee spent 15 months in Vietnam and said despite the circumstances of the war, he thought it was a “beautiful country” with “wonderful people.”
He later attended college at Guilford College where he studied history, political science and English. From there he went on to UNCG to earn a master’s in creative writing. While there, he was approached by a couple that was in the program and had started a publishing company in Virginia Beach and wanted to do a series of pictorial histories on southern cities.
“Near the end of my second year there, Bob Watson asked me if I would be interested in writing a pictorial history of Winston-Salem,” he said.
Brownlee proceeded to write his first book, Winston Salem: A pictorial history in April 1977, which he says was a bestseller by local standards at the time.
“Back in those days I had the attitude that whatever comes up I can do it,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Brownlee said he later realized that Winston-Salem’s heritage ran much deeper than what he had read about.
“When I did my book and published it in ’77, I thought, being young and stupid, that this is it,” he said. “This is the definitive book on Winston-Salem. Nobody will ever do a book better because I know everything. And of course now I know that I knew nothing and nor will I ever know anything.”
Brownlee said he has met a variety of people that have fascinated him over the years, including Coretta Scott King and Maya Angelou. Angelou lived two doors down from him at one time and he talked with her for an hour about her relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.
“They both (Angelou and King) knew that he was going to be shot and killed, or blown up or something. They both knew it,” he said.
In 1993, for Angelou’s 65 th birthday, Oprah Winfrey hosted a grand party at Graylyn which Brownlee had the privilege of attending. It was there that he also met Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson “After dinner Oprah said let’s go in the next room, we’re going to have entertainment,” he said. “And so we go in the next room and there’s a stage here. And we’re all standing around the stage and Oprah says, and now here’s Ashford and Simpson.”
But Brownlee said one of the most fascinating people he ever met was a sergeant he met at Camp Pendleton before he went off to Vietnam.
“In order to train us to go to Vietnam they sent us up to the Marine Corp base at Camp Pendleton and let the Marines do it,” he said. “And the best part of that was unarmed combat. They told us, show up in your gym shorts at 8:00 and your going to have unarmed combat. So here’s a bunch of hung over sailors, because we have a club right next to the barracks there and we had been in there all night, and we’re going ‘man this is going to be so cool. We’re going to learn Kung Fu and Jujutsu.’ And here comes this little sergeant, and he comes strutting up. Morning sailors, he says. He says, ‘I know what you all have been doing. You all have been sitting here talking about how cool it’s going to be to learn Kung Fu and Jujutsu, right? Everybody goes, yeah sarge.
He says, ‘well forget that sissy stuff. This here’s a course about how to kill a man with your bare hands. He said, you pay attention in this class, you learn what I got to teach you, you’ll never be afraid of another person as long as you live, and he was right.”
Brownlee said people from history he most wants to meet include RJ Reynolds and other local figures that played a role in shaping the city’s development.
“I can just imagine Reynolds walking down the street, on his way to work, looking around going, ‘what does this town need,’ he said. “He’s always thinking, and when he thinks of something, he doesn’t just say ‘well we ought to do this.’ Instead he does some more thinking and goes, ‘you, come here.’” Library marketing director Don Dwiggins said Brownlee used to come to the library every day before he worked there. He said he’s never met anyone with the same breadth or depth of knowledge.
“You say hello to Fam and 30 minutes later you’re still talking to him,” Dwiggins said. “Oftentimes one question that he’ll try to find out the answer to will lead to another one and another one and it just keeps going.”
Dwiggins called Brownlee a “walking encyclopedia,” and said he has the ability to remember phone numbers and events. He thinks it is this quality that keeps him young and inspires future generations. “Even if you’re not a local history buff or have an interest in it, you spend 10 minutes with Fam Brownlee and you will be,” Dwiggins said.
The North Carolina Room moved into the Forsyth County Government Center on November 17 to make way for the renovation of the library over the next two years. Dwiggins said it is in an ideal spot.
“It’s in a great location because we’re across from the Forsyth County Register of Deeds office, which genealogists often go there for their work,” he said.
Brownlee had worked as an adjunct faculty member at Forsyth Tech for 15 years before coming to the library. He maintains that he has the best job in Forsyth County. While he said he tries not to take life too seriously, he has an opinion on just about everything, including whether Texas should secede.
“If they would take South Carolina with them I would contribute money to help them on their way,” he said. !