The saddening news about the loss of Hesston College alumnus and former employee Tony Brown filtered out to the greater campus community Monday, causing many to stop and reflect on the exceptionally positive impact Brown had on everyone who crossed his path. Brown died May 22, 2023 after a brief illness.
“What I experienced personally, and observed in countless interactions with others, was Tony’s incredible capacity to connect with individuals by giving them his full attention,” explains former Hesston College president Loren Swartzendruber. “Former students have commented that he remembered their names decades after graduating.”
Numerous social media posts are proof of this statement, including this one from alumna Hannah Miller ’07. Miller writes, “Tony Brown was a wonderful human who has left so much love and light in this world. Like, I’m talking, inspiring international performer and influencer for peace and justice, y’all! And how lucky were we to have caught time in his orbit!! I will remember Tony for the way he made you feel: like you were the coolest, most valued and interesting human in the room. He was always on your team. His approach was magnetic … Eleven years after our HC graduation this group happened to be having an “Oregon weekend” and we caught wind that Tony was going to be performing at Albany Mennonite. Yes, eleven years after graduation we wanted to go see him, and yes, eleven years after graduation he knew us all by name and was so excited that we surprised him! It was a really special morning with a man whose legacy will ripple indefinitely.”
“A song by Alia Gonzales, ‘Each Other’s Light,’ became the title of one of his albums and Tony’s signature song,” friend and former Hesston College Bible professor John Sharp reflects, “and he was a light. He was a light to many of us.”
As another friend and colleague Dallas Stutzman, former Hesston College alumni director, shares, Brown’s light shone brightly by pulling people together through an idea of oneness of humanity that emphasized similarities rather than differences. “He went always seeking to understand, seeking to learn, seeking to grow from others, not to be the one to impart the wisdom. Although he did share wisdom, and brought his music, his message was healing and hope to the world, through songs and stories, and what a gift that was to people. And they responded to that.”
A member of the college’s class of 1969, Brown returned to campus in fall 2000 to teach sociology and anthropology and serve as artist in residence, a one year sabbatical from his responsibilities as assistant director of student counseling services at the University of Washington. Brown connected quickly with the college community, his love for the people of Hesston reignited.
Over the years he taught a variety of courses, counseled and encouraged innumerable students and became a mentor and role model for all of campus. At the same time he stretched his vocal and relational talents, founding the Peacing It Together Foundation which supported his travel to interact with and sing for people in conflict in places like Bosnia and Belfast, Vietnam and Thailand.
Brown developed and performed “I Go On Singing: Paul Robeson’s Life in Word and Song,” a show that celebrated the life and accomplishments of the great American opera singer, scholar, activist and athlete. The show debuted at Wichita’s Orpheum Theater Feb. 21, 2012, and Tony performed it as recently as spring 2023. Brown also developed “Common Threads” with Bible professor John Sharp, a show that shared the experiences of African Americans and that of the early Anabaptists, and a show “Songs and Stories of Peace, Hope and Justice,” which premiered in March 2020.
Hesston College students, faculty and staff were all blessed by Tony during his nearly 20 year tenure with the college. During that time, the greater campus community had a front row seat to his ministry of building peace through music. Stuzman went on to share a story from a performance he and Brown did for a congregation on the east coast that was very diverse in culture, age, religious background and much more.
“And at one point Tony sang, ‘He’s got the whole world in His hands.’ And that group of children spontaneously, because of who Tony was, who he brought to the occasion in every concert that he ever presented, was to involve people in the performance, to value them as part of the performance, to seek their understanding, also to share his. But it was a joint performance. It wasn’t just about him and his showmanship,” Stuzman recalls. “It was about the audience and never more represented than the children of that congregation instantaneously seeing his energy and power and effort that he brought and wanted them to be involved in that, to respond to him in that song, ‘He’s got the whole world,’ and they immediately said, ‘in his hands.’ And maybe they knew that song before, but they were drawn to him and the humanity, the oneness that we all were together. And those children represented it so well in their response to him.”
As a close friend, Stuzman was able to see the light Brown was to Hesston College as a whole, and that Brown’s investment was not returned void. “Tony brought joy, and he brought healing to people in the institution and vice versa. The institution and the people that were there brought so much joy and comfort to him and ways to get through our sorrow,” explains Stutzman. “The philosopher Gibran talks about the pain and sorrow that carves out our soul leaves room for the joy, and I think Tony lived that way. It wasn’t that he didn’t have pain. He did in so many ways. But he found the joy in everything and that’s why we all cared for him so much.”
It’s clear that Tony Brown leaves a lasting legacy to the multitude he influenced near and far. As current Hesston College President Joseph A. Manickam puts it, “In all my travels, I have never met a person loved by so many around the world. Tony’s gift to the world was his ability to bring together known enemies through the gift of his music and storytelling. Tony’s love for all humans and his ability to easily connect across barriers was a rare trait.”
Brown’s peace building initiatives and musical talents were a rare gift to this world that will impact generations to come, but there’s another gift Swartzendruber believes Brown would want others to receive.
“Never were words of a spiritual more true than Tony proclaiming with gusto, ‘I Know de Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me,’” Swartzendruber reveals. “In Tony’s humble spirit, he would want us all to claim that gift.”
An interview of Tony Brown by Victor Hogstrom of PBS Kansas – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-0n7pWW_jY
Additional Tony Brown stories and reflections from Facebook comments:
Chris Thuma, Hesston College class of 2014:
I had completely forgotten I had this photo of me and Tony Brown back when I graduated from Hesston College in 2014. Tony was one of the most influential people I had ever met in my life. He was so kind and thoughtful to everyone he met. He truly was one of a kind. One of my favorite professors while I was at Hesston. He was intuitive, charming, smart and a great listener. He challenged me to think outside the box everyday. I will never forget the discussions we had about life and how to live as a person of color in this country. I truly was blessed to know you Tony. (used with permission)
RayAnnon (Bluemel) Jean, Hesston College class of 2011:
Today, the first professor in college to inspire me, Tony Brown, passed onto his final journey.
Social Welfare. Freshman year spring 2010. I remember it like it was yesterday as I watched him help open the minds of my classmates & I, expand deeper into what it meant to put humanity at the forefront of all situations and encourage me that my mind was a beautiful place. He stayed a constant supporter in my life and I will always value my one semester of getting the chance to learn from such a soulful mind. Very often I am reminded of what he shared in everyday situations. Especially recently as I watched closely for recovery updates, and couldn’t help but reminisce on those words of wisdom.
I am saddened to know you’re gone, but so thankful that I understand how much my pain means you simply shaped my life. You will still inspire me, whether here or there. (used with permission)
Michele (Schrock) Hershberger, Bible prof, Hesston College class of 1981:
There are few people in this world who truly exemplify Jesus. Tony Brown was one of them. Rich in mercy. Kind. Wise. I was so very honored to have known him and call him friend.
Tony, John Sharp, and I led a group of Hesston College students on a learning tour of Selma. And I watched Tony teach about justice not only with words but with his life.
Tony, I know you’re singing with Jesus right now! I hope you can hear how much we all loved you!
Tricia Montano Gingerich, Hesston College class of 2007:
Sometimes you don’t realize the impact someone has had on your life until their passing causes you to pause and reflect.
Never once did I walk away from an interaction with Tony Brown without a smile on my face and an uplifted spirit. Most importantly, though, as a wandering young adult trying to find my own sense of meaning and purpose, it was Tony who saw me, at my core, and nudged me in the direction of social work (y’all I started college thinking I wanted to do Secondary Education). And THAT path, through education, training, jobs, and people I’ve met along the way, has made me who I am today.
If there was a “I’m a better person for knowing Tony Brown” Facebook group, there would undoubtedly be a gazillion members from all over the globe. What a blessing he was to this world. (used with permission)
Savannah (Sizer) Clarkston, Hesston College class of 2015:
My heart is broken knowing you are gone today. I could never say enough good things about Tony Brown or as we liked to call him, Downtown Tony Brown. He was one of my mentors at Hesston College and I look back fondly on all the truly inspiring things he said to me during my time there. We would talk about life, my struggles, peace, and faith. He always knew exactly what to say and left me with so much to think about. What an incredible man with a phenomenal voice who brought so many joy. His impact on this world will never fade. You will be missed, Tony. Praying for your family and smiling as I know you are with Christ now.
Dalia Othman, Hesston College class of 2007:
R.I.P Dear Tony Brown. One beautiful person, one beautiful soul who touched so many lives in such an amazing way. I remember when I would have bad days in Hesston college, I would go talk to you in your office because I knew you would cheer me up with the biggest smile on your face and give me words of wisdom to get me through the day! You always had a positive attitude that I admired. Heaven definitely gained an angel with an amazing talented voice.
Josh Lightsey, Hesston College class of 2013:
I spent almost as much time in his office as I did in my dorm room. We shared music with one another, shared stories behind our songs, and encouraged one another on the journey. This man changes my life in the few years I got to meet him. Always made me feel like a celebrity when I walked in the room. Always had the time for me when I needed it most. He gave me hope in the middle of what was possibly the most stressful years of my life.
He will be missed dearly and I will forever treasure the moments we shared together.
Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, former Bible prof and board member, Hesston College class of 2002:
My first year as a student was also Tony’s first year as artist in residence. As a part of working with communications I had the opportunity to interview him after his trips. This was the most life changing “job” to sit and talk to Tony. He made everyone feel like he knew them for a lifetime.
Coming from a small rural white town Tony was the first African American I had ever had conversation with at length. He was the embodiment of grace and peace and joy.
From former president Loren Swartzendruber:
I once asked Tony how it was that he decided to enroll at Hesston College. He and Larry Diener, also a musician, had been friends at Central Christian School in Kidron Ohio. After graduation in 1967 Tony stopped to see Larry on his way from Pittsburgh to begin studies at Prairie Bible Institute in western Canada. Larry’s mother said, “Tony, you should enroll at Hesston College.” To which Tony responded, “I’ve never been to Hesston.” And she said, “Well, you’ve never been to Prairie Bible Institute either. Let’s call President Tilman Smith to see if you can be admitted to Hesston.” And, as they say, the rest is history. Had it not been for Larry’s mother’s encouragement, surely Spirit-promoted, Tony would not have attended Hesston College and Goshen College, and may not have ever made such an amazing impact on the Mennonite Church and far beyond.
On one occasion during his time on faculty at Hesston College Tony was invited to sing the national anthem at a Seattle Mariners baseball game and we planned an alumni event at the ballpark. Most of the group sat in the upper right field deck where they unfurled a large banner, “Tony Brown Rocks” as he sang. Later in the evening he was approached by someone in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization to ask if he would do the same at a Dodgers game. To my knowledge, that never happened.
During my last three years at the college we traveled, often with Dallas Stutzman, director of alumni relations, to a number of communities on behalf of the college. Our alumni and donor friends thoroughly enjoyed hearing Tony’s beautiful and resonant baritone voice. As all of us who knew Tony remember him, he connected at a deep level with everyone through his music and interpersonally. It was on one of those trips, to a college golf benefit in Arizona, that Tony introduced me to his sister, La Verne Brown Diggs and her husband. In subsequent years I had the joy of meeting other members of Tony’s extended family. In March 2004 Tony honored Pat and me by singing at my inauguration at Eastern Mennonite University.
One interaction in Lancaster Pa., provided a humorous memory that we shared many times in the following years. Dallas, Tony, and I checked into a motel across the street from Lancaster Mennonite School and we were looking for a place to eat dinner. Tony asked the desk clerk, “What can you tell us about the Lapp’s restaurant just down the street? Is it owned by Mennonites?” To which she responded, “Honestly, I don’t know much about them. But I’m thinking they may be Amish-Americans.” Of course, Tony would never have embarrassed the clerk but we enjoyed a good laugh as we exited the lobby.
Tony asked Erika to call me on his phone from the hospital a day or two after his stroke in mid-April. (I’ve learned since his death that he made similar calls to a number of long-time friends.) We communicated frequently via Facebook and I had just a day earlier asked if he had seen a Washington Post story on the desecration of a Paul Robeson mural. He didn’t respond to my inquiry which was unusual and surprising. We never did talk about that article. It was a great conversation; he was energized, verbally agile, and as always, deeply engaged. I would never have guessed he had had a stroke if I hadn’t seen an earlier communication. When I learned of his unexpected cancer diagnosis I knew I wanted to see him as soon as possible.
I had about an hour with Tony and Erika the afternoon he returned home under hospice care. By then he was not particularly verbal but he was aware of my presence and we chatted about good memories. I assured him that hundreds of friends were praying and that his life had touched thousands of people all around the world. On Sunday morning I sat with him for just a few minutes, reciting Psalm 23. I said, “I’m going to recite this in the language of the King James Version which you would have known as a young boy in the Pentecostal church.” He was able to finish a few of the phrases, but I knew he was fading quickly. At one point he said in a deep groan, “Oh, Loren, I don’t think we’re going to make it.” Hard words to hear from a dear friend!
Erika gifted me two of Tony’s CDs as I left them, one of them with numerous spirituals anticipating a new life in heaven, free from the bondage of slavery. What an unforgettable experience–driving five hours back home listening to Tony’s amazing baritone voice, ‘In Bright Mansions Above,” “Good News! Chariot’s Comin'” “I’ve Got a Robe, You’ve Got a Robe, All God’s Children Got a Robe,” and “If You Get There Before I Do, Tell Them I’m Coming Too.” As my mother would have said, “My tears watered a lot of plants along the highway.” None of us knows for certain what lies beyond our earthly sojourn but I can easily imagine Tony accompanying a celestial choir singing, “Go Down Moses” as he did in 1968 with the Hesston College choir. Never were words of a spiritual more true than Tony proclaiming with gusto, “I Know de Lord’s Laid His Hands on Me.” In Tony’s humble spirit he would want us all to claim that gift. Rest in peace, brother Tony. I miss you!
From former alumni director Dallas Stutzman:
A group of us from the college left early in the morning from Wichita on a performance circuit. We flew into Chicago, everybody hungry, found the first diner that we could, close to Chicago O’Hare. All of us were sitting in a booth having rowdy, boisterous, raucous conversations. The waitress comes and, as you know, Tony valued every waitress or wait person he ever met, wanted to know their name, wanted to know a little bit about them, valued them in what they had to say and what their day was like and valued them in response to their service with substantial tip. It didn’t matter a person’s status to Tony, he could be performing in the greatest concert halls in front of people with all kinds of position and power and fame and financial resources or talking with the waitress in this case. People were all the same to him. It speaks to his oneness of humanity belief. Before the time was over, we’d gotten to know her name, we found out it was her birthday, we sang in the best harmony that we could with our group, and she literally wept in front of us, said it was the best birthday that she’d ever had and she so valued that exchange and our interest, our concern for her and we left with her feeling valued, us feeling blessed by the conversation.
Whether it was Great American Song, The Spirituals, the Robeson show, Songs and Stories of Peace, Hope and Justice, on and on and on – it was the music but it wasn’t the music. It was what Tony brought to it and he crossed all boundaries of interest, of age strata and gender and position. And every kind of person, because of who Tony was, brought that richness and interest to everything. And once they were there and experienced that, they were challenged and brought to new things to consider and think about – what could they do about things? How could they change things? The words were so meaningful and Tony’s energy and charisma brought that about in people and challenged them.
I was with Tony at the rehabilitation hospital. There were procedures going on. Physical therapists came and, and then a little bit later, occupational therapists, and we were with them a little bit. Then they asked us to step out. The nurse and occupational therapists were there with him and working with him to begin working at those things that needed to happen for him with his stroke condition. But things were not going well. A little bit later they asked me to come into the room, said Tony had asked for me. I held his hand and we spent time together and all of us were encouraging him to work at some of those steps. And what I was struck by was, first of all, the nurse and the therapist’s recognition of the person that Tony was, the depth of who he was and their value for him. They knew him, valued him, sought to do the best for him in a really tough and hard difficult situation. As Tony and I interacted together, they saw, I think, some things that solidified their view of Tony. They saw him and the two of us in our relationship, the depth, the quality of who Tony was, who we were together, and what was our approach to life to each other and to the world. It was a moment in time. And at that point, I think the four of us were together and united in that moment, a difficult moment. And yet through that I think we all began to see each other’s light. If we can see each other’s light, then we can be each other’s light and we can be united in that. I think that happened in that little microcosm of the oneness of humanity, all desiring the best in hard circumstances, not maybe ending up the way you wanted it to. But I’ll never forget that moment and that togetherness of the four of us and working for the best for Tony and what he embodied for all of us as well.
You know, I think Tony made a mistake in 2000, to come to Heston. You know he had the world by the tail in some ways. Assistant Director of Student Counseling Services at the University of Washington, a major university, all the things that he had in that position. And yet there was some dissatisfaction for him. And I think he got called back to the roots of his being, when he was a student there and what that meant to him and it was exciting for him to come back. And when he did come back, I think he found his home, his real home. And I think everything that Heston College is and embodied was attractive to Tony. And I think everything that Tony was, was attractive and embodied the other direction as well. Hesston College has been so known for its relationships, its emphasis on and value of the students and personal relationships. Tony fit into that. I think he embodied that back in everything that he was. That lives on so much. You look at the Facebook posts today and the impact that he’s had on the students, both from a classroom perspective but also in their relationship, how much they were valued by him as a person and as a professor, and seeking the very best for them. And so in some ways, they were synonymous. Tony said countless times that Hesston College was everything to him. He chose Hesston College. He could have gone anywhere, in any Mennonite circle, in any circle, and done anything. And he chose Hesston, Hesston chose him. And 20 years later, it’s been everything that it needed to be – for students, for alumni, the name recognition of Tony Brown and Hesston College are almost synonymous. What a gift he’s been to the Church, to education in the Church, to Hesston College, and how much they’ve given life to him as well in return. And he just extremely valued all of that.
I remember catching a flight with Tony and Ken, waiting for the plane to take off and Tony’s phone rings. Listening to bits and pieces of this conversation, it was a very special conversation. It came from Ricky Richard Anywar, a former child soldier in the Lord’s Resistance Army of northern Uganda. And his experience of losing his family to the army and then being a child soldier, sent to kill his own family as many of them were. And Ricky’s desire for building an orphanage for those children and offering them job skills training. I’ll never forget that day and hearing Tony’s interest and compassion and willingness to listen and hear the plight of that situation and then seeking to do what he could to assist, which led to, from that one phone conversation, to two visits to Uganda, Ken and Tony going and singing before an outdoor concert in front of 10,000 plus people, offering their words of healing and hope to that situation and to learn and understand. It led to the establishment of the Anthony Brown Baritone School for students of the orphanage to assist them and a powerful result that came from that one little phone call and visit of Ricky Richard to the Hesston campus and to the U.S. and wanting to continue that effort. COVID slowed everything down and Tony wasn’t able to do some of the fund raising he had hoped to do. That was disappointing for Tony but didn’t change his desire and his heart to offer the very best that he could for Ricky Richard and the plight of those children in northern Uganda.