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Brownell made lasting impact on Williston

Jan. 13, 2011

By Tim Simard
Observer staff
Lincoln Brownell hangs off the side of a boat while traveling in the Caribbean with his wife, Mary, in 1946. The Brownells traveled the world together and the photo remains a family favorite, according to son Richard Brownell and his wife, Sue. Lincoln Brownell passed away on Dec. 26, leaving a strong legacy in Williston. (Courtesy photo)

During his 96 years on earth, Lincoln Brownell traveled to places across the globe that most people only dream of visiting. But even as Brownell lived and worked in faraway locales, he always considered Williston home, said family and friends.

Specifically, Brownell enjoyed living on the slopes of the Williston hill that shares his family’s name — Brownell Mountain. His love of the town also allowed him to leave a lasting impact on the history of Williston, evidenced by the Thomas Chittenden statue in the village green, made possible by Brownell’s generosity.

“He was extremely proud of the Brownell family history in Williston,” son Rick Brownell said of his father.

Lincoln Brownell died peacefully on Dec. 26 at his Williston home surrounded by family. He was predeceased in 2007 by wife, Mary Hester Brownell, who went by “Jerry” to family and friends.

“He was extremely devoted to Jerry and was always by her side,” said family friend Louise Kolvoord of Essex Junction.

Lincoln and Mary Brownell married in 1941 and eventually had three sons: Williston resident Peter Brownell, former mayor of Burlington and a Vermont state senator; Bart Brownell, who now lives in London, England; and Richard Brownell, a former Chittenden Bank vice president who also lives in Williston.

While Lincoln Brownell lived his last decades in Williston, he spent most of his formative years in different parts of the world. He was born in Guangzhou, China in 1914 to Henry and Jane Brownell, both of whom were missionaries and teachers. Attending American schools in China, Brownell witnessed firsthand the inner strife the country underwent between the Nationalist government and the rising Communist party, Rick Brownell said. His knowledge of China, its language and its complexity earned him a post there during World War II when he was a member of the U.S. Air Force.

Brownell’s exposure at a young age to Communism and its effects resulted in a lasting impact, his son said.

“He hated the ‘Red Tide,’ so to speak, and he was in full support against Communism,” Rick Brownell said.

Lincoln Brownell came face-to-face with Communism again in the 1960s and ’70s. It was during this time that he set up a trading company located in Southeast Asia. In 1961, Brownell and his family moved to Vietnam to operate his company, Brownell, Lane International Ltd. The business flourished in Saigon despite the Vietnam War, though Rick Brownell said his parents had to flee the country when North Vietnamese forces occupied Saigon in 1975.

It was then that Brownell and his wife moved to Williston full time.

“He always wanted to come back here and settle down,” Rick Brownell said. “He bought the big family house hoping we’d all come and visit, which of course we did.”

Lincoln Brownell was well acquainted with Vermont and his family history — he lived for a time in his youth at the family farmstead on today’s South Brownell Road and graduated from Burlington High School in 1931. Returning to the Champlain Valley in 1975, Brownell went about serving on various boards and committees.

He was chairman of the Environmental Commission for Chittenden County and dealt with the first Act 250 permits in the area, which friend Phil Kolvoord said was immensely important.

“He was always extremely concerned about the wellbeing of Vermont and Vermonters,” Kolvoord said.

In 1995, after Brownell received a vast claim for his lost assets in Vietnam, he proceeded to bolster the Williston Historical Society. With his financial support, the society found a permanent home by purchasing a room in Dorothy Alling Memorial Library and published William Sterne Randall’s history of Williston. Money also helped fund  the Gov. Thomas Chittenden statue in Williston Village and a replica in Montpelier. Brownell also raised money with childhood friends to renovate and open the Ethan Allen Homestead in Burlington.

The Williston Historical Society, of which he served as president for a time, wouldn’t be what it is today without Brownell, his friend Ginger Isham said.

“He was a real down-to-earth person that everyone felt comfortable around,” Isham said.

In later years, Brownell continued to travel to distant locales with his wife and compiled his family history, publishing his memoirs in 2002. Family meant the world to Brownell, his son said, and he was devastated by his wife’s death three years ago. Brownell was grateful for his tight-knit family, his son added.

“He was a sophisticated, learned man who always advocated for education,” Rick Brownell said. “He was an amazing person.”