In the mid-90s, before there were smartphones and social media, many area teens would take to the streets, just like Eric Brown. Skating, BMX biking and skateboarding had their own subculture of teens enjoying the fresh air on two or four wheels. But their presence by many was thought to be a nuisance and being shooed away from parking lots, public plazas and the like was a common occurrence.
It was a day just like any other when Brown and his friend were kindly told by a Leesburg police officer to leave an empty parking lot.
“My frustration hit a tipping point,” Brown recalled. “Anywhere we’d go we’d get kicked out and told not to do this. We’re not causing harm to people, we’re not fighting, not doing drugs. You just can’t do what you want to do.”
What Brown, then just 15 years old, did was take matters into his own hands, and lead the charge to bring a skate park to his hometown of Leesburg.
The Town Council is scheduled to vote tonight on whether to name the skatepark after its teenage founder.
After that fateful day when Brown and his friend again found their recreation interrupted, he knew the solution to the problem was, in a way, simple: Create a place where he and his friends, and others interested in skating, biking and skateboarding friends would be welcome. A skate park.
So he went home to his mother, Wannetta Langley, who suggested they reach out to his former baseball coach Frank Buttery, who at the time was serving on the Leesburg Town Council. Buttery, now a District Court judge, encouraged Brown to write a speech and come along with some of his friends to present his idea to the council. And he did, and would become a fixture at meetings for years to come.
And now, 20 years later, many in the community are hoping the council will name the skate park after Brown in homage to the efforts he undertook to make the project a reality.
Leesburg resident Jim Kershaw recalls his early involvement in helping Brown raise money for the project. He caught wind of Brown and his friends’ pleas to the council through his then-girlfriend, a former clerk serving the council.
“She came home and said a bunch of kids organized themselves and did a presentation to the Town Council asking for funds to build a skate park. I said ‘that’s pretty interesting’,” Kershaw recalled.
He harkened back to his own youth in Hawaii when he was “one of the pioneers of skateboarding.” Kershaw said he and his brother would take apart his sister’s roller skates, attach them to a piece of wood and use that as a makeshift skateboard. So with that memory, and rekindled passion in mind, he reached out to then-mayor Jim Clem.
“I said, ‘if I can organize these kids and get some money will you support us?’ He said ‘of course I will,’” Kershaw recalled.
So a nonprofit was formed—Friends of Ida Lee—and Kershaw, Brown and many of Brown’s young friends began a years-long fundraising effort.
“We did a couple battle of the bands. We started selling hot dogs, hamburgers and sodas at every major [town] event for four years. I would buy all the stuff and make the arrangements and [the kids] would do all the work. Those kids worked their butts off,” Kershaw said.
But none more so than Brown.
“Every time we didn’t have a fundraiser planned he would call me. After four years, it was hard for me to keep my consistency and energy up, but he would ask, ‘Jim, what are we doing next?’” he said. “It was his vision and his energy,” that made it happen, he said.
Steve Pangle has a similar recollection. He was one of Brown’s friends who also lobbied the council for the skate park project.
“He was the one that lead the way for all that were interested in board sports back in the day,” he said. When most of us kids were worried about being kids and just having a good time, he just genuinely cared.”
Through all their fundraising efforts, Kershaw, Brown and Brown’s friends raised about $16,000 for the project. Their efforts were bolstered by $14,000 from the Loudoun County Parks and Recreation Department’s Make It Happen Fund, and the remaining funds were ultimately given by the Town Council. Town Manager Kaj Dentler, then serving as the town’s Parks and Recreation Department director, suggested the skate park be built on Catoctin Circle to replace a pair of aging tennis courts. The Catoctin skate park opened to the public in 1998 and was a popular fixture for area teens, and even adults, up until its recent closure for renovations last year.
Of the efforts to name the skate park after Brown, Kershaw is in favor. “Eric was really quite a visionary and a leader for being 15 years old. He was way beyond his years. He’s always been like that,” he said.
KD Kidder agrees. The Photoworks owner recalls her initial interactions with Brown, also when he was 15. He came in looking for a job, but Kidder advised him that she couldn’t hire him until he turned 16. So he returned on his 16th birthday. He would work for Photoworks for two years and some of his photos are still displayed in the downtown shop.
“He was so brave then to go in front of the Town Council at that age,” Kidder said. “Most kids don’t think they can make any difference. That’s part of why I think it’s so important for it to be named after him.”
She credits her mother, Doris Kidder, with the initial idea of advocating to the Town Council that they name the skate park after Brown.
“This is no ordinary person,” Doris Kidder said of Brown. “We’re honoring a 15-year-old who kind of turned the town around. He left a legacy, a model for other teenagers. We’re honoring a kid who saw a need and went after it. I don’t think it was an easy thing to do.”
Councilman Marty Martinez was the first to bring the subject up on the Town Council dais last year. He is hoping his council colleagues support the idea.
“He was a rebel of sorts,” Martinez said. “It shows people that you can’t judge a book by its cover. I’ve got a real appreciation of all the hard work Eric had to do.”
Now 36 years old, Brown lives in Hawaii and recently found himself in a somewhat similar position to where he was 20 years ago. It was not so long ago that the fight for the skate park was renewed when the need for renovations, and the high price tag associated with it, had some town leaders questioning the need for the project altogether, as well as whether the location on Catoctin Circle was the most appropriate.
“During that time, just from here living in Kauai I sent emails, made phone calls, rallied whoever I could,” Brown said. “So many people helped the park to live and now thrive that it’s going to be redone in a big way.”
With that battle seemingly won and the renovations now well underway, Brown said he was surprised, yet warmed, by the fact that so many in the community want the new park named in his honor.
“I really can’t express how deeply honored and grateful I am. I wish I could know everyone’s name so I could thank everyone personally,” he said.
On a recent visit with Langley and KD Kidder at Photoworks, the two put forward an armful of letters of support from those who hope the council supports the renaming. Even Clem, now retired from public service, has thrown his support behind the idea.
“Take a moment and think about the positive impact the naming of the skate park after Eric Brown will have on today’s youth. They will be influenced by the power youth can have on today’s elected officials and that their voices are important to the community’s future,” he said in a letter to the Town Council shared with Loudoun Now.
Langley is visibly humbled at the many community members rallying together in support of her son.
“I’m still amazed at all of the things he has done,” proud mom Langley gushed. “He was just determined to make sure there was some place to go, not just for himself but for future kids.”
And that priority has not changed for Brown. As he awaited the council vote, he was hard at work on another community project in Kauai: A skate park project being undertaken by the Anaina Hou community organization.