Jeff Benedict: Saying goodbye to 'most humble' man I ever knew

Published: Sunday, July 24 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

What's your life story?

I mean if you died tomorrow, what would people say your life was about?

I'm thinking about this because last week I paid a visit to a man who is facing death.

Ray Brown is 86 years old and was just diagnosed with cancer. He's down to 112 pounds. That's about 100 pounds below his normal weight. He's in a nursing home, where I found him alone, dozing in a wheelchair and wearing a red-checked flannel bathrobe on a muggy 85-degree day in East Lyme, Conn.

When I arrived at Bride Brook Health and Rehabilitation Center, I hesitated to wake Ray on account that I wasn't sure it was him. He looked lifeless. Plus, I wasn't used to seeing him all alone.

Ray is always around people. He's helped thousands of them during his lifetime. He's practically an institution in the nearby city of New London, where he started the American Bookkeeping Co. in 1956.

That sounds like a big company. It's not. It was basically Ray and his assistant. From a little second-story office on a historic street called Captain's Walk, Ray kept the books and filed the tax returns for the working-class of southeastern Connecticut.

His clients were plumbers and carpenters, painters and butchers, sailors and people who owned small businesses. He was like them, a hard-working man just trying to earn a living.

He treated clients the way he wanted to be treated. He charged low fees. When people had a rough month and couldn't make a payment, he'd overlook it and catch up later. And when clients became ill or elderly, he made house calls. In that respect, he was like an old-fashioned doctor.

Only Ray didn't carry a medical bag with a stethoscope. He came with a briefcase full of papers and a pencil tucked behind his ear. He'd remove his sport coat and take his place at the dining room table.

Then he'd take a person's tax return and start scribbling numbers on a note pad. His hands and his mind were like lightening. When it came to figuring, he was a human calculator.

Then he'd charge something like $65. You can see why his clients were so loyal. People couldn't afford to leave him.

You can also see why Ray never made a lot of money. That wasn't his aim. He loved people, not money. That's the real reason his clients never left him.

When a man dedicates 50 years to building a business, it ends up being the main narrative of his life. But the thing I cherish most about Ray is his sense of humor. He used to wear a pin that said: I AM THE MOST HUMBLE. He'd grin when he wore it. People who knew him cracked up because a humble person would never wear a pin like that.

Yet Ray is the humblest man I know. He wore old clothes; drove an old car; lived in an old simple house; and packed a lunch that he seldom stopped to eat.

But he always had time for a laugh. Only Ray didn't just laugh. He bellowed, often so loud that his face would turn cherry red and the skin on his forehead would furrow. Usually he was the butt of his best jokes, especially when things were going wrong.

Ray did my taxes for years. I started going to him when my wife and I first got married. He'd always pass along tips about saving money and being frugal.

But the priceless life lesson that Ray taught me was unspoken. By example he taught me to laugh at life, even when life isn't funny.

Ray experienced his share of sadness. But he smothered it with laughter. Teach a man to do that and it's like giving him a fountain of youth.

That's why I'll cry when Ray is gone. It's why I took a break from my summer vacation and had to go find him at the nursing home when a friend emailed me at the beach and told me he was there.

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