Tributes have been pouring in from former colleagues of Jim Brownell, who served on the Loudoun Board of Supervisors for 24 years, from 1968 to 1992.
Brownell died Nov. 19, just one month shy of his 100th birthday.
Those who knew him during his service as a supervisor—whether as colleague or senior staffer—remembered him not as a professional politician, but as a man who had the county’s best interests at heart.
He married his high school sweetheart, Zora “Mac” McCall, in 1945. His first involvement with Loudoun agriculture was working on a dairy farm near Lincoln, but he soon moved back across the Potomac River where he managed and owned dairy farms for a decade.
In 1957, the Brownells—with financial help from the retiring owner—bought the 700-acre Whitehall farm near Bluemont. It then was one of Loudoun’s largest dairy operations—at a time when there were more than 200 across the county. Only a dozen remained when the family retired from farming in 1991.
A Republican in an era when that was a rare breed in Loudoun, Brownell wasn’t one to let partisanship get in the way of pursuing the best interests of the county, according to several who served with him.
Long-time state Senator Charlie Waddell began his political career on the county board with Brownell. Both were elected to their first terms in 1967—from the opposite ends of the county. Waddell was a Democrat from Sterling who worked at Dulles Airport, but he worked well with the Bluemont farmer.
“We were polar opposites in our philosophy of government, but nevertheless we became fast friends,” Waddell said. They worked on a number of issues, including co-chairing Loudoun’s part in ratifying the revised state constitution; pressing for a state Bottle Bill—which would have placed a 10-cent deposition on all beer and soft drinks—a measure that was thrown out by the Virginia Supreme Court “as an overreach,” and they worked together to establish the county’s sanitary landfill—the first to win a state permit—and Loudoun’s first dog ordinance.
However, the two butted heads on Waddell’s successful effort to provide free text books in Loudoun schools; and his effort to redistrict the county’s election districts to adhere to the one-person, one-vote edict of the U.S. Supreme Court. The latter began to change the balance of power in Loudoun politics, which at the time were controlled by western supervisors. They clashed on the budget in 1969—Brownell thought it was too much, and Waddell too little.
“He was so honest, a true gentleman in every sense of the word—and his word was his bond.”
Brownell’s aversion to partisanship even got him booted out of the Loudoun County Republican Committee, after he endorsed Waddell’s senate campaign. Brownell ran as an Independent and retained his seat on the county board.
Brownell retired as a supervisor at the end of 1991—the year the first Republican majority was elected to the county board. Waddell represented Loudoun in the state Senate for 27 years and retired after serving as deputy secretary of transportation.
Even after their public service ended, Brownell and Waddell would return together to the county boardroom on occasion to urge supervisors to leave partisanship outside and to work together for the good of Loudoun—to follow an example they set in earlier decades.
“He was a unique individual, one of a kind,” Waddell said.
Former County Administrator Kirby M. Bowers also remembers Brownell fondly.
“He and Mac represented the best about Loudoun—you could not get two better people,” Bowers said. Calling him “straightforward, honest and someone who respected staff’s opinion,” Bowers said. “It didn’t matter whether you were Republican or Democrat—he loved the county.”
He recalled Brownell’s dislike of wordy staff reports. “He wanted them short, in different color sheets—action meant yellow, and policy was another color, and initiative was something else. It meant nothing to Jim that he was color blind,” Bowers said, laughing.
Terrie Laycock was an assistant to County Administrator Phil Bolen during Brownell’s time on the board. She remembers the 1968 board as being very non-partisan and close-knit.
“They’d tease him—he was the only Republican. They said if he wanted to caucus, they’d hold a mirror up for him, so he’d have someone to talk to,” Laycock said.
This was a time when the county was transitioning from rural to suburban, and Brownell was a strong supporter of farmers and traditional farming.
“We had a program where if a farmer had livestock that had been killed by dogs, they could claim compensation and the county would compensate. Also, to combat that noxious weed, Johnson Grass, if farmers treated it with Round Up, they could get compensated,” Laycock said.
In those small-government days, she was tapped to run the programs, recalling that Bolen told supervisors, “If you want to hire someone to administer them, get Terrie Laycock to do it—she grew up on a farm.”
In those days, she and other staffers were charged with delivering meeting packets to supervisors’ homes. She’s never forgotten one instance when she took her daughter with her to the Brownell’s farm, which featured a stately manor house that today is among Loudoun’s most popular wedding venues. Seeing the pillared portico of Whitehall, the four-year-old, “her eyes like saucers,” asked, “Mama, does President Reagan live here?”
Former County Attorney Jack Roberts, called Brownell, “one of the good ones.” Despite his strong Republican sentiments, “he never let partisanship get in the way, he would always work with people,” Roberts said.
When Roberts joined the staff in the 1980s, he learned of Brownell’s reputation a budget hawk with a focus on issues to protect farmers. But Roberts said he found him to believe in good planning and to always work to get a solution.
“I really missed him. He was serious—but he didn’t take himself too seriously,” Roberts said.
Tom Dodson represented southwestern Loudoun on the board until 1992.
“I was lucky to serve with him and [longtime Leesburg District representative and board chairman] Frank Raflo—you couldn’t find two more competent public servants. It was an honor to serve with them.”
“He always was looking at issues, rather than politics; it was the community that came first,” Dodson said of Brownell. “He never followed the party line—didn’t even consider it. It was always issues, the benefits and the county—and he voted his conscience.”
County Treasurer H. Roger Zurn served on the county board during Brownell’s final term.
“Jim Brownell was one of the best men I ever met; honest, and with the highest integrity—particularly notable in a politician,” Zurn said. “He told it like it was. He was always straight.”
Zurn said even when Brownell disagreed with others vehemently, he would respect their argument and “10 minutes later, he’d be joking with them.”
“He and Mac were quite an institution—he the politician, and she the volunteer—they dominated western Loudoun.”
Another good friend and admirer is Memory Porter. She worked as the county’s first lobbyist representing Loudoun’s interests in Richmond and remembers working with Brownell in the unsuccessful efforts to win authority state to enact farmland preservation tools such as Transfer of Development Rights and Purchase of Development Rights. “He was as smart as a tack,” she said.
A favorite recollection of many was Brownell’s fury when his hearing aid would act up during board meetings.
“I’d hear him mutter ‘that “daggone bleep-bleep-bleep,” Zurn said of the aid’s low battery alarm.
Bowers also remember Brownell’s ire over his hearing aid—not so much at board meetings, but on the golf course.
“He was a great golfer, with wonderful hand-eye coordination. But when he missed a putt—you’d hear that ‘bleep, bleep, bleep,’” Bowers said.
Of course, sometimes his hearing aid failures worked in his favor. Until the early ’90s, county rules required nearly every subdivision application to come to the county board for a public hearing, even though supervisors had little legal leeway to deny even the most unpopular ones. On many nights, supervisors heard hours of often repetitive testimony from irate neighbors opposed to the development plans. During one of those late-night sessions, Brownell was initially unresponsive to a question posed to him. He recovered quickly, but—to the ire of some speakers and, perhaps, the envy of some colleagues—admitted that he had turned his hearing aid off at some point during the lengthy session.
“He was a special person—I hope the present board finds a good way to remember him,” Bowers said.