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Jeff Benedict: Reflecting on the life of an 'ideal knight'

Published: Monday, Aug. 3 2015 8:53 a.m. MDT

Ray Brown and family.  (Family photo) Ray Brown and family. (Family photo)

Remember Ray Brown?

He's the 86-year-old bookkeeper I wrote about back in July after he was diagnosed with cancer and ended up in a nursing home. Ray's story generated more reader mail than any column I've written.

"Even though I never met the man," a farmer from Preston, Conn., wrote, "people like Ray Brown make life worth living by the way they handle their own life."

It was easy to love a man like Ray. I say "was" because at 11 a.m. on Oct. 11, Ray was buried near his mother and stepfather at the Colonel Ledyard Cemetery in southeastern Connecticut. He died Oct. 5.

That night I was on my computer reading the news that Steve Jobs had just died. Then I heard "ping," notifying me of a new email. It was from one of Ray's grandchildren.

"Just wanted to let you know that he passed away this evening. He was finally at home and slipped away after he gave Grandma a kiss. He was in the library, surrounded by his prized books. It was where I'd hoped he'd go."

When people close to me die I can't help thinking about the meaning of life and my own internal clicking clock.

I closed the email. When I did, Jobs resurfaced on my computer. Fittingly, the device he helped bring to so many homes was full of news and information about him. Hailed a genius and drawing comparisons to Thomas Edison, Jobs attracted remorse and fanfare from around the globe. Even my 11-year-old son, who considered Jobs his hero and affectionately referred to him as "Stevie Jobs," was crushed when I told him the sad news.

Then I told my son about Ray Brown. "Oh, no, dad."

Yes, it's true, I told him. Ray Brown, a man he admired, and Stevie Jobs, a man he idolized, died the same day.

That's what was on my mind the next day when I visited Thomas Jefferson's home.

Jefferson died there in his bed on July 4, 1826, the same day that John Adams died at his home outside Boston. Think of it, the two primary forces behind the Declaration of Independence died the same day, and it was July 4. Sure makes you think.

Sunlight flooded Jefferson's room as I stared at his neatly made, empty bed. I thought of Adams' last words: "Jefferson survives." He had no idea that Jefferson had died hours earlier. Even when it came to dying, Adams got the last word.

Monticello has a unique reverence. I was there with my good friend Bill Marler, the country's top food safety lawyer who represents about half of the families who have lost loved ones in the ongoing Listeria outbreak tied to cantaloupes that has claimed 21 lives so far. Both of us had death on our mind as we tiptoed through the house where a Founding Father once ate, slept, wrote, read and created.

Jefferson was an inventor. His contraptions reminded me of Jobs' gadgets. But his books reminded me of Ray. Jefferson once had the largest personal library in America, which ultimately became the start of the Library of Congress.

Ray didn't have that many books. But I'd put Ray's love for books up against anyone's. It was a love born of circumstance. He had planned to go to college. But weeks after graduating high school in 1943, Ray answered the call of duty and enlisted in the Army. On June 6, 1944, he was in the opening wave of the D-Day invasion on Utah Beach at Normandy. He earned a Bronze Service Star for his heroism.

By the time Ray was honorably discharged in 1946, he went right to work. With no time for college, he started collecting and reading books. It was a lifelong affair that made him intimate friends with novelists, poets, historians and biographers. He knew Dickens and Hemingway, Frost and Tennyson, Schlesinger and Halberstam.

Ray fell in love with literature the same year he fell in love with his wife, Rose Culotta. They married in '47 and started a family.

Ray never had eyes for anyone but Rose. So it's no surprise that when I visited him at the nursing home back in July, he told me that his one final wish in life was to return home to his books and his Rose. When he closed his eyes for the last time, he wanted to be next to his two loves. He even prayed for it.

His prayer was answered. When I spoke to Rose on the phone, she said: "Ray loved his books so much. He had books three-deep. I worried that the shelves would collapse."

We both laughed. It was a light moment on a sad day. Good old Ray still makes us smile.

I asked her to tell me what she remembered about Ray's final moments. Rose is losing her memory. It happens. But she seemed sharp when she told me this.

Ray had just recently come home from the nursing home. A special hospital-type bed was set up for him in his private library. That's where he spent his final days, surrounded by his literary friends.

"What was the last thing he said to you?" I asked.

"I asked him if he wanted to eat. He said 'yes.' I gave him a cookie. Then he kissed me. I turned around. Next thing I knew, he was dead."

We both cried. Rose reminds me of the flower she's named after — beautiful yet strong. She wanted me to know he didn't suffer. "Say a prayer for him," she said. "They are burying him tomorrow."

That was Oct. 10. I was on Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. I'd come here with family for the long holiday weekend to unwind, read and write. One of the books I brought with me is Tennyson's "Idylls of the King," in which he describes the ideal knight:

Who reverenced his conscience as his king;

Whose glory was, redressing human wrong;

Who spake no slander, no, nor listen'd to it;

Who loved one only and who clave to her.

Ray Brown was an ideal knight.

Jeff Benedict is the author of "Poisoned: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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