|Remembering Tom Braun: A Man with Heart|
By Steve Horton
(Note: With the Fowlerville Family Fair now going on, I thought it an appropriate time to remember Tom Braun, the longtime fair secretary and manager. I was privileged to have him as a friend. He is sorely missed. Here is the article I wrote about him after his death in early 2011.)
The year was 1976. I had been hired earlier by the Livingston County Press as its Fowlerville area correspondent, providing news and features. I was being paid $5 per-article, so, when an editor from the Lansing State Journal contacted me, asking if I’d like to provide that paper with Fowlerville news as well, I felt elated. My prospects, languishing since leaving college four years before, seemed to be brightening. Freelance work for the Journal, I thought, might lead to a fulltime position with that daily.
I met the gentleman for lunch. He offered pointers, told me I’d get $100 a month if I produced a certain number of articles, and then drove me about town, suggesting some feature story ideas. One of the places we went was to the Fowlerville Fairgrounds. He was less than complimentary about the condition of the place, a comment that startled me since, like many of my fellow townspeople, I took pride in this venerable institution.
He decided I should do a story, detailing (in his opinion) the sad state of the grounds and how this had been allowed to occur. While I could see two or three of the livestock barns had gotten ‘long in the tooth’, they didn’t look much worse than a couple of buildings on the family farm where I’d grown up. But I nodded my head to his request. Later, I wondered if this had been premeditated or a spur-of-the-moment command.
I knew that Tom Braun, operator of Braun Cleaners, was the fair secretary, but, other than knowing what he looked like, I had never met him. Someone had told me he could be hard-edged. A couple of days later, with trepidation about my covert mission and expecting a hard-edged reception, I went to the Cleaners, introduced myself (although he knew who I was), and told him that the State Journal wanted me to do a story on how the fair operated; a behind-the-scenes if you will. I did not mention it was supposed to be a critical expose.
The request excited him. His enthusiasm made me feel guilty about the ulterior purpose. The next day I met him at the fair office for the interview. He had brought along Bill Miner, a longtime fair board member. I learned about the ‘nuts and bolts’ of how fair week was organized, starting with the January state convention when entertainment was booked, followed by the production of the annual Fair Premium Book, and also about the ongoing maintenance and improvement projects to the buildings and grounds to get them ready for the early July event.
I learned as well about a group of dedicated people who had, since the 1950s when the fair seemed on the brink of demise, worked hard to keep things going. Bill Miner noted that there had been a point when the board offered to give the fair to the county, an offer that was turned down by the board of supervisors, and that a couple of times loans from private individuals were all that kept the fair operating for another year.
But by 1976, Tom informed me, the financial picture had steadily improved for a number of years and the surplus money was being used to catch up with infrastructure improvements like installing new water and sewer lines and expanding the electric service capacity. He noted that the new fair office we were sitting in was an accomplishment and that eventually the board planned to fix up or replace the older barns and other buildings. In his remarks, Tom kept focusing the credit for these successes towards the other board members. Later, I’d be told by some of those fair officials that Tom, as secretary and fair manager, deserved a good measure of praise as well.
Warming up during our interview and as we discussed this comeback, Tom made a statement that crystallized the message I was hearing; “What has kept the fair going over the years, what keeps it going each year are all of the people who donate their time, talents, and energy in all kinds of ways,” he said, adding, “Volunteers are the heart of the Fowlerville Fair.”
That latter quote was the lead as well as the headline of the article I submitted to the State Journal. The ensuing narrative, rather than being a hatchet job, was a celebratory one. To the editor’s credit, he published the story as I’d written it. I suspected, though, that he was disappointed with my decision. I did other stories during the next few months, mostly reporting on the village council and school board meetings. There were a few controversial ones that resulted in banner headlines on the paper’s state news page, along with several ‘feel good’ features that were spotlighted. But apparently my output didn’t cause a great impression, and I was informed that, due to budget concerns that necessitated a cutback in freelance staff, my services would no longer be needed.
My aspirations of landing a fulltime job with the daily as a result of this opportunity ended. Meanwhile, I’d been submitting the same or similar articles to the Livingston County Press, and the editor was happy with my output. He even bumped me up to $10 an article and eventually I secured a fulltime position with that newspaper. Despite a few twists and turns along the way, my career has been in weekly newspaper journalism.
What I discovered, although it took time for me to understand, was that my loyalty as well as the kind of journalism I preferred to pursue lie with that celebratory article rather than the requested critical piece. “Two paths,” to borrow the metaphor from the Robert Frost poem, and the one I chose after my interview with Tom Braun “made all the difference in the world.”
What I also found at that interview was a man, about 12 years older than me, who was friendly and engaging. It was the start of a wonderful friendship that grew and flourished and would include ‘his’ Dawn and their children-- Kurt, Keri, and Kami— along with others in their circle of family and friends.
I would go on to do PR work for the fair, later I was in charge of organizing and printing the Fair Book, and for a number years ‘my’ Dawn and I, through the sponsorship of the Fowlerville News & Views, put on the Ladies Day Program. In addition, Braun Cleaners was always a supportive advertiser of this newspaper until Tom closed his business in 2005 and retired.
For nearly 10 years I had the Braun’s to myself. Then, after taking a job in Hastings, I returned one afternoon during Fair Week, accompanied by a lady I was engaged to, and introduced her. Tom and Dawn figuratively embraced her. Still later, when our son Bradley was born, they became Uncle Tom and Aunt Dawn. Keri babysat him one summer when he was a toddler and accompanied him on his first fair ride. After that Kami took over and for many summers, until he became a teenager and no longer needed such oversight, he was a fixture at the Braun household. What started out as two guys talking about the fair blossomed into a friendship and shared affection between two families.
I HAVE A MULTITUDE OF MEMORIES about Tom. It’s impossible within this small space to adequately convey the wide scope. I remember the Monday mornings when I’d stop at the Cleaners to leave that week’s papers to be distributed, usually ten of them, and we’d spend a few minutes visiting. He was knowledgeable, thoughtful, and opinionated on all manner of topics. More than once our conversations put me behind schedule, but the chats were worth the delay.
There were all of the fair weeks I alluded to, seeing him in action and also watching his three kids grow up and mature; our two families visiting one of his favorite places, the Detroit Zoo; seeing his pride in the railroad diorama he’d set up in his basement; the restaurant meals we shared; the weddings of the children; the year he and Dawn were Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Christmas Parade and the year they were honored as the parade Grand Marshals; the fun we had at the fair conventions in Grand Rapids; and seeing the warm bantering between his mother Luella and him at the Cleaners.
Most of all I remember his friendliness, his smile, his good-natured teasing, his bulldog determination (yes, he could be hard edged in standing up for what he believed), his anger when he felt someone was abusing a trust or acting in an unethical or improper manner, and his love for and pride in his family. As the fair secretary and in other aspects of his life, he behaved and acted with integrity. He was not self-important nor did he seek personal benefit from his position. Instead, his inclination was to include others, shift the spotlight and credit to them whenever he could, and bring people together for a common purpose. I don’t wish to paint him as a saint. Like all of us, there were mistakes, misjudgments, and an ill-advised word, but in the larger sum his life, the manner in which he lived, the standards and morals that guided him, I found him to be an admirable gentleman.
Tom and I did not see as much of each other after he retired. We could have, but most of us get involved in our personal orbits, caught up in regular routines that seem to quickly fill up our days. That’s not an excuse, just a weak explanation. It’s at a moment like this, the sudden death of an old and dear friend, that you regret not making an effort to spend more time together. Still, I’ll have this host of warm recollections and for that I’m grateful.
One of those memories is running into Tom at the Little Glad Center over a year ago. I was leaving papers off for distribution there, and I spied him walking along the hall with his grandson, Grant. The two of them were holding hands and talking to each other, Tom bent down to better hear what the boy was saying. “Grandpa Tom,” I thought, as hard-edged as a teddy bear. My great sadness, besides losing my friend, is that six youngsters have lost their wonderful grandfather.
He instilled in me two main ideas. One is that involvement in a community like the Fowlerville Fair is not about self-promotion or self-benefit or an egotistical attitude, but about being part of a larger effort and common purpose. “There is no one individual who does everything,” he once said. “It takes a group effort. That’s what makes a community.” The other is that having a position, like being manager of the fair, is both a trust and responsibility. He had great respect and regard for the older generation that had operated the fair, kept it going and prospering, and felt that was his duty and charge to follow that example. By doing so, he instilled that ethic in a younger group, including myself.
A torch had been passed to him (this job of managing the fair), and Tom took great care in keeping that flame glowing and finally passing it on. He had many reasons to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment in his life, most of all his family, but I believe that his long tenure at the fair was among them. Long ago he told me that “Volunteers were the heart of the Fowlerville Fair” and much else in our lives… to give of yourself and to do so with a care and compassion and integrity. But for me there’ll always be another “heart of the Fowlerville Fair” and it belonged to a fellow, a bit on the short and stocky side, who wore a ball cap and had a twinkle in his eye as he walked about the grounds and conversed with all those who shared in that common effort. Tom Braun was a man with heart.