2001


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Thoughts on José Brown’71


From Seth Wittner ’73

I got to know José Brown [May ’01, “Arte Povera”] while playing piano for dance classes at Reed. I didn’t know him well, but still have vivid memories of him. We’d bump into each other somewhere and talk for awhile. He had a broad, beaming smile and a joyousness about him that made me feel good about myself and glad to be alive. José would do some impossible dance move that seemed like throwing himself toward the ground and ending up floating parallel to it. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He defied gravity. It was inspiring.

Over the years, whenever I’ve been in circumstances that have had me down, I’ve thought of José to pick myself up and find courage. That’s the kind of force of nature he was. Even though I barely knew him, he’s been someone who has stuck with me. I couldn’t shake him loose if I tried. When I go to
a dance concert of any kind, José Brown is the standard by which I measure what I see.

It was hard to read about the end of José’s life. I knew that he died of AIDS a few years ago, but
I didn’t know about his homelessness. Louise Steinman did an important thing by letting us all remember José, his incredible gift, dedication to his art, and beauty as a human being. I only wish he could still be with us. I wish he could know what he means to me.



From Conrad Skinner ’74

Thanks for the writing on José. I didn’t know he’d died. I still think of him from time to time. . . . He’s the kind of guy who pops into your mind to give hope when the going’s tough. José was inspiring because he was straight ahead. He was in a car accident in 1970 or so. He broke both legs and the doctor said he would never dance again. . . . viva!



From Suzan Lowitz ’78

Your article about José touched me on several levels. I was a Reed student 1973–75 and spring ‘77, in theatre, psych, and a number of other pursuits. I don’t think I ever met José, but I wish I had. I’ve come to realize that brilliant people don’t just congregate in the real world the way they did at Reed.
I’m guilty of taking brilliance for granted. I was particularly touched by José’s illness and his refusal to succumb to that illness. Your article arrived at a sensitive time for me; this week marks the anniversary of another death from AIDS. My fiancé, Stephen Juhl, graduated from Reed in 1975. His death in 1989 was way too premature. I was also reminded of Jonathan Rome, who graduated in 1974, one of the most talented actors I ever knew. We were passing friends, never as close as I would have liked, and he, too, died of AIDS. Perhaps if José had lived, he’d have found some material evidence of appreciation in the world; perhaps he would have gone on struggling against the commercial view of art which failed to support him. All these men had dances to dance, parts to play, and stories to tell. Our world is poorer for their loss.



From Roger Fenton ‘71

I slipped my Reed magazine out of its envelope today and gasped at the cover. Was it José? It had to be! How marvelous! What’s he been up to all these years? I had wondered hundreds of times where he was, what he was doing. I could never find him. Then it all turned to dust as I read the article, learning that he had died. Not only that, but he had died years ago, and my momentary dream of connecting with him again was gone.

José and I were good friends in 1970–71. Living overseas almost since the day I graduated, I had drifted out of touch with almost everyone. A couple of years ago I reconnected with Bedene Greenspan ’71, now in Berlin, but José eluded me. I remember his extraordinary vitality, optimism, engagement with everyone and everything around him; that incredible smile. And yet he revealed very little of himself to me. Just knowing and thinking he was alive somewhere, even if out of reach, enriched me all these years; and life is immensely poorer for knowing he has gone, that he will never again brighten anyone’s room simply by walking into it. The thought of him alone, sick, poor and homeless, even for a day, is terrible. I’m indebted to those who were able to be with him and care for him at the end.



From Dorothy M. Weaver ’35

Your article on José Brown is about a self-pitying parasite whose life may be worthy of a grade B movie. Of course Reed people are titillated by such “golly gee” events, most of whom have never lived or worked “on the ground” outside the U.S. and are impressed by such a life. I find this nine-page article a brave attempt to communicate something. Myself, I find real African dancers much more interesting.



From Megan Nicely ’89

I had graduated from Reed and was on slippery ground when I first met Brown. I was living crammed into a studio apartment with another Reed graduate and a ferret, working a wretched low-paying retail job, taking dance classes as often as possible, and wondering how my desire to become a dance artist was ever going to be realized. During this time Brown arrived in Portland to teach a master class and select participants for a performance at the Echo Theater, and I signed up.

The group quickly dwindled to three, and I found myself thrown into a completely new and not altogether understandable experience. Beginning with improvisation, Brown guided us through a series of movements, including the slowest sit-up I have ever done in my life! These and other unconventional movements were performed in costumes made out of Salvation Army long underwear amongst
a sea of huge black balloons. Brown, covered in white body paint, suspended himself from the ceiling by pulleys while his dance partner Akemi smoked a cigarette even more slowly than my sit-up. The name of the piece was “Where the Moon Goes” and he referred to it as “very Butoh.” Unsure as I was as to the meaning of the piece or what my specific role was, I nevertheless devoted myself to the production. As the budget was nearly nonexistent, we all pitched in to sew costumes, create the program, and help with the technical needs of the show.

This experience propelled me forward toward making the choice to become a dance performer,
and shortly thereafter I moved to New York. I am now a dancer and choreographer in the Bay Area. My work fuses both modern and Butoh aesthetics, and I realize it is not unlike the piece I performed in over 10 years ago. I am grateful for the experience I had with Brown and the chance to witness his passion, dedication, and fearless conviction in action. I appreciate it all the more now as the climate for artists grows increasingly difficult—I think, no matter how tough things get, Brown and others like him find a way to endure, and I push onward.




The Legacy of Lloyd Williams

From David H. Ransom, Jr. ’57

It was with sadness tinged with nostalgia that I read of Professor Lloyd Williams’s passing (Reed, February 2001). My years at Reed often seem a long time ago, 40-odd years. But the mention of Professor Williams immediately brought those years into sharp focus again. Faced with a sometimes indifferent—or at least occasionally distracted—student (myself), Professor Williams proceeded to do what he did best: teach. Almost in spite of myself, he taught me the math that I would surely need in the future with a combination of cajolery and humor and rigor. And the fundamentals, which he stressed so strongly, have served me well in the decades that followed. I was a physics major who spent his professional life in engineering, electronics, and computers, and mathematics has served as the foundation for all that I have done. I certainly never suspected that would be the case as Professor Williams labored to teach me what he knew I would need. I was, shall we say, a reluctant if reasonably obedient math student.

The space program and the personal computer were hardly a glimmer in anyone’s eyes in
the mid-1950s, certainly not mine. Yet the math tools with which Professor Williams equipped me have served well for all these years in those very fields. Mathematics may be able to exist without physics, but the converse is definitely not true. For example, my satellite tracking program STSPLUS (available free at http://www.dransom.com) includes dozens of pages of complex formulae. The algorithms themselves are the product of U.S. Space Command but the ability to understand them sufficiently to put them to practical use is without doubt due to Professor Williams and his skill and persistence. The frames of reference may have changed substantially in the interval, but the logical analysis and math fundamentals behind them have not. NASA distributes my program to our schools and, with luck, it may serve to interest another generation in math and science and space. I certainly hope they are as fortunate as I was and learn from a teacher with the dedication and the skill of Professor Williams.

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