Mary Hester Brownell dies at 91

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Mary Hester Brownell, devoted mother and wife, who kept track of her husband’s top secret activities during World War II through her job at the Office of Strategic Services, and who moved with her family to Williston after evacuating Saigon in 1975, died peacefully on Sunday, June 24, 2007. She was 91.

Mary Hester was born in Mays Landing, N.J., on Feb. 12, 1916, the daughter of lawyer Burton A. Gaskill and Irene Gordon Gaskill. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, after which she taught junior high school French and English in Decatur and Knoxville, Tenn.

In 1941 she met and married Air Force officer Lincoln Brownell. However, the new couple was soon separated due to World War II when Lincoln was sent overseas to gather Air Force intelligence in China. Mary Hester got a job working at the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D.C. – the precursor of the Central Intelligence Agency. Lincoln could not tell his new wife what he was doing or even where he was since that information was top secret. But that couldn’t stop the newlyweds from staying in touch.

“Turned out that my reports back to Washington, copies crossed her desk, because she was in the China Section,” Lincoln, now 93, recalls. “I couldn’t tell a lot of the things I was doing to her in letters, it was against military rules … so she learned from the secret reports that I filed what I was doing.”

After the war, Mary Hester and Lincoln moved to New York, and had three sons, Peter, Richard and Bartlett. The family moved to Saigon, Vietnam, in 1961 and lived there for 14 years. Lincoln ran an export business, and Mary Hester worked as the principal of the American Community School, and was heavily involved in several organizations in Saigon, including the Vietnamese-American Association, the Saigon Museum and the Saigon USO – a nonprofit group that supports U.S. troops through entertainment and social activities.

“She was like the mother to all these military troops,” said son Peter, who lives next door to his parents’ home in Williston. “She would pick up these kids at the USO and make sure they wrote letters to their parents, and help them make telephone calls, and make sure they had ice cream.”

She also loved to entertain. “They had dinner parties every week,” said Peter. “They were always entertaining people and getting people together.”

The family evacuated Saigon on a commercial plane four days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975. They moved to Williston and put down roots, but didn’t stay put.

Mary Hester was a good travel partner. “Best I ever had,” said Lincoln. “She never complained. She was a very good sport.” Good thing, too. Lincoln said that over the years he has visited 108 countries, most of them with Mary Hester.

Black and white photos of Mary Hester in various locations hang on the walls of their home on Brownell Mountain. In one she is riding a horse in Kashmir; in another she stands next to one of the towering Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, which were later destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Peter and Bart remember their mother as a very positive person with a good sense of humor. The men could only remember two occasions on which they heard their mother swear out loud. Once was when she was stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel in New York City (“The damn tunnel!”) and once when she crashed her motor scooter into a wall in Bermuda and broke her collarbone (“Damn, damn!”).

“She was always cheerful,” Lincoln said. “Never an angry word passed between us.”

For most of her life she was called Jerry – a nickname given to her by Lincoln. But six or seven years ago she decided it was time to go back and start using her real name, Mary Hester, Lincoln said.

Mary Hester was friendly and good-natured, and spent a large part of her life volunteering and helping people.

“She was always very, very kind, particularly to the servicemen in Vietnam,” Peter said. “She touched a lot of people’s lives.

She is survived by her husband of 65 years, Lincoln Brownell; their three sons, Peter and his wife, Linda; Richard and his wife, Susan, all of Williston; and Bartlett and his wife, Michal, of London, England; nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, She was predeceased by her brother Gordon Gaskill and her sister Isabel Carlock.

Donations may be made in Mary Hester’s name to the Lund Family Center, P.O. Box 4009, Burlington, VT 05406.