Lee Thomas Brown, the gentle giant who warmed Midtown’s heart and won over its people, has left our city with one incredible, inspiring story to tell.
A Lee Dog Story was inspired by Lee Brown, a Memphis native who passed away July 14, 2018. Lee Thomas Brown, aka ‘Lee Dog’, lived on the streets of Memphis for almost 20 years, but in his last 15 years he was able to get off the streets and into stable, affordable housing with the help of the Memphis community.
At A Lee Dog Story, we believe that Lee’s story can serve as an inspiration to those currently experiencing homelessness, while also giving a blueprint to community members who want to end homelessness permanently. At A Lee Dog story, we are committed to learning as much as we can from Lee’s story and other individuals currently experiencing homelessness. Once we know their stories, we can work together in solidarity to end the plague of homelessness in our communities.
“Don’t make no difference what materials people come up with, it’s what you got inside your heart.” – Lee Brown
“Keep walking till you run out of road.” – Lee Thomas Brown, aka ‘Lee Dog’
Lee Brown was the epitome of the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, and the everyday embodiment of a giant Grizzly (teddy) bear. He was huge, about 300 pounds, with big, burrowing eyebrows, a rusty beard and lips the size of two average human thumbs. From far away, and a lot of times close up, he was an intimidating presence, like he could grab you and crush you with one squeeze. But Lee was not just larger than life in body, he was larger than life in heart. He had a heart that could reach across Memphis, to any part of the city or to any soul that was lucky enough to cross paths with him.
When I first met Lee, I was 16. I was on the way home to our house near Snowden Middle School when I saw a man sitting alone on a bench by a tree next to Catholic High School. It was a cold day, so I walked up to him and asked him if he wanted some food I had just purchased from Midtown Market on Cooper. That tree and bench became synonymous with Lee, a place where everyone in Midtown would see him for what felt like decades.
Now Lee, being the giant teddy bear he was, accepted this bag of food offering, but as he looked inside, I felt like he was potentially holding back his disgust of what I had offered. I remember there being donuts — powdered sugar of course — orange cupcakes, chips and some form of candy. I didn’t get his negative reaction, I mean, I was hooking him up with free food! I felt bad for the guy, even if it was his choice to live on the streets, because like I said it was cold. Like so cold that Lee’s nose had snot. Not a small amount like, ‘Hey you have a monkey in the window’ kind of snot hanging out of your nose, but more of a Lloyd from Dumb and Dumber stream of snot frozen down the side of your face kind of situation.
He looked down into the bag, wrinkled his bushy eyebrows and enthusiastically said: “huhhhh.” As soon as I became convinced that he didn’t want the food I’d given him, he saw a pack of smokes and he quickly reached past the mountain of sugar and pulled them out. With his eyebrows now curled upwards in a “that’s odd’’ manor, he more enthusiastically said, in his patented giant-like, deepened voice: “Thanks for the smokes, kid.”
Much to my bewilderment, I had just purchased two packs from Midtown Market on Cooper and apparently handed one of the packs over to Lee. I was trying to be nice, but not that nice! I mean that pack was worth ten times the weight of gold to the average 16-year-old. It was a buy-one-get-one-free special. I had just gotten my first ride, an old Toyota Celica. I’d forgotten that one of the packs was in the car, and one was still in the bag, the one I had just handed over to Lee. Now, I don’t know if you have ever seen “The Sandlot” movie before, but that’s the kind of mistake I felt I had just made, like this ball is absolutely not retrievable.
So, I did what any 16-year-old who had just driven to the opposite end of Midtown to illegally purchase cigarettes would do, and asked him for the cigarettes back, but nicely of course. “Uh, so, haahha, umm, actually, funny thing, I actually didn’t mean to give you those cigarettes, super sorry, I was just rushing and didn’t realize they were in there.” He looked crushed. Then he quickly smiled, and almost laughing, said, “It’s OK kid. I figured it was a mistake. Nobody gives you a full pack of smokes.”
That’s the moment I knew I had met a gentle, giant teddy bear. He could have responded to my request to return my smokes in any way, but instead of anger or vitriol, he responded with kindness. Luckily for me, I quickly realized in the moment that I was being an absolute ass. I immediately told him to keep them and that I hoped it made his night better. Lee was grateful that I had changed my mind and we ended up sitting there chatting for at least an hour. The entire time neither of us smoked a single cigarette, we just sat and talked. Well mostly Lee talked and I listened (if you know me, you know that can be a rare occurrence).
I was curious about why Lee was on the street and thought that maybe he would appreciate someone to talk to, even more than the bag of sugar I had just given him. And oh, did he. He talked and talked, while I listened. As our conversation progressed, I began to realize he had a rich, deep, kind soul. Despite his size and appearance, it was easy to tell he was the type of man who couldn’t even hurt even a cockroach (and in Memphis we all have our fair share of cockroaches.) “Lee Dog” had such clarity when he talked, like a wise soul who had been on the earth for ages. He would help you sort through life’s problems, as if he had none himself. His kindness abounded even more than his wisdom. Lee was the type of man who cared more for the average stranger than himself. He would have given me the only blanket he had that cold night, if he thought I needed it. From that moment on we became friends, never knowing that one day he would appear in not one, not two, but all three of my college Indie short films. From the moment I met him, I knew he was a one of one, a unique, vibrant personality that was an immense asset to the City of Memphis.
While we talked, it seemed as if he knew he had made some mistakes that caused his current situation of living on the streets, but that he was in no way trying to change anything. But luckily for Lee and for our friendship, something changed in the years after our first conversation — he was surrounded by a community of Memphians that did whatever they could to support him. Lee transformed his life and went from living on the streets to working again and living in an apartment in Midtown. Lee didn’t do this alone though, A lot of Lee’s transformation was thanks to people like Joe Birch of Channel 5, and Neil of Neil’s Bar and Grill. These influential people from Memphis truly became a part of his life, so much so that he talked about them like they were his personal saviors. They took Lee in and helped him find a steady job and permanent, affordable housing. Without community support from people like Joe and Neil, Lee could have easily been another lost homeless soul on Memphis’ streets. Instead, Lee lived the last 20 years of his life with community, dignity, respect and peace, and became an even bigger part of the incredible Memphis community. He was caring, thoughtful, generous, kind, smart, resourceful, brave, strong and REEEEEAAAALLLLYY funny!
At one of Lee’s favorite spots, Neil’s Bar, formerly located at the corner of McLean and Madison, Lee loved to throw intimidating looks at you during a game of pool to try and distract you during your shot. If you ever came close to beating him, which I only did a few times, his eyes would widen and stare deep into your soul like he was questioning everything about you. As soon as you missed, his giant smile would crack through the surface and he’d tease you about being so easy to throw off. It was at Neil’s where I got to know Lee the best. He would help Neil out with odd jobs, but mostly just did security around the premises in exchange for a bite to eat. Neil was never worried about him coming inside, even on Lee’s most challenging days. Eventually, Lee became such an integral part of Neils, he was inside all the time. He would sit right at the end of the bar and eat a hot plate, or go shoot pool with one of the unlucky passersby. I was mostly a walking bartender in those days, so I had the pleasure of laughing with him about random passersby and watching his pool power plays, everyday for practically six years.
While working at Neil’s, I was also attending Memphis College of Art for film and animation. Lee was fascinated with this, especially the film aspect, and he would tell me his ideas for movies all the time. He would constantly remind me of how well he could sing, how deep his voice could go, and of course how creepy his face could look. “If you ever need an extra in one of your movies, I’m your man,” he’d say. I started thinking of plots that could include him or even focus on him as one of the star characters. Eventually, I got a few ideas together and approached him one day while he was sitting in the front of Neil’s by the grill. He loved all of them.
The first idea was a story called ‘The Apple’ in which a confused teen — me — tours through the city in a lucid dream. Lee’s role was to be in a few scenes as the curious character sitting on the curb by Circle K, on the ground behind Catholic, on Auburndale and in the small park, Williamson on Poplar. Despite never acting or taking a class in his life, he had a very photographic nature and his acting was so natural. He could trigger these deep expressions like no other, and bring the largest presence ever to the screen without saying a thing. By this time, he was known around Midtown as Lee Dog to most and he was becoming not just a friend of mine, but a brother.
We filmed “The Apple”, a 2 ½ minute short, and then quickly decided on the next one, the story of Memphis, told from a resident’s perspective. At this point I knew that Lee’s story was the one I wanted to tell. He had a rich voice, a great sense of humor, a witty personality and deep thoughts, and he had great stories to tell. Unfortunately, once I started filming my first documentary, I realized the time and resources required for the project would be too much to take on in a short film, so instead, I ended up only making a trailer for the concept. In the recordings I have, Lee is the most cinematic and charismatic person around. I loved filming that short and was so proud of the end result. I really wish I’d had the time to finish the entire film, but it was the time in the semester for me to creative my third film, a B-horror movie.
As I’ve noted before, Lee’s size and personality can be intimidating, but I’ll give you an idea of how much our group of friends loved Lee. To start the film, I handed Lee a 12-inch butcher knife and a “I Know What You Did Last Summer” fisherman’s coat. All 12 of the crew members/cast went down into a basement with him to shoot the film, “Adam’s Basement”. The entire process was so much fun. We were all having the time of our lives, and I was having the time of my life making my first real short film, all because of Lee Dog. We will never forget it. It might not have impressed Stephen King, but it sure as hell impressed us. He was such a joy to have on set. He would come up with ideas, crack jokes, and every once in a while try to freak someone out. But, no matter how hard he tried no one in the crew even flinched because all knew of his kind giant’s heart could never harm a soul.
When I left Memphis to finish film school in Denver, Lee was one of the people I never wanted to leave. I knew he had health problems, which meant I might not ever have the pleasure of hanging with him again if I moved. We kept in touch for a while, but eventually, as with most long-distance friendships, it faded. But, my love for Lee never decreased or disappeared. We would talk occasionally on the phone and it was just always so good to know he was still doing well, and thriving alongside people like Joe and Neil. When we talked, he would let me know how he showed someone our movie and would talk fondly about his security job, his apartment and singing for the church. He told me that he recorded a song and couldn’t wait for me to hear it. Well, I finally did (thanks to Joe Birch for posting it). The man sings like an angel.
The past couple of years have been flying by so fast for me I didn’t even realize he was on Facebook. I just kept going and going with my girlfriend and our new business start-up, and didn’t make a trip to Memphis for over two years. Last December, I made it back home and the universe brought us together one last time. I was in Memphis for the holidays. Not only did I run into him, but it was at the good ole Bar-B-Q Shop. Lee absolutely loved their BBQ! It was my last night in town and I was just about to leave the shop. I was literally at the door when I decided I had to buy some of their sauce and dry rub to take back to Colorado.
I turned around and saw him walking toward the door. I ran toward him and he looked kind of confused, but then immediately snapped out of his food coma and realized it was me. “Zach!!! Zach!!” he said, “Zach, I can’t believe it!” We grabbed ahold of each other so tight. We talked for a couple of minutes, then I introduced him to my girlfriend, and he of course talked to my mom and dad for a minute. He gave me his telephone number and told me about his new apartment in Binghamton and how I had to see it. I told him I was literally leaving the next day to fly back to Colorado, but that I would call him the next day to come see his place and hang out for a while, and then we said our goodbyes. It was the best goodbye you could ever hope to give a friend, all smiles, hugs and love.
The next morning I woke up and couldn’t find the tiny sheet of paper he had written his number on anywhere. I literally spent an hour or more that day looking for it and while we were driving around Midtown taking care of a few things before leaving for the airport, I kept an eye out for him at all his old haunts. I lost my phone on a hiking trail a few years back in Colorado and never got my contact list back again — his being one of the most important ones I lost. That night at the Bar-B-Q Shop I told him I never thought I would see him again and that I was so happy I did, and that nothing made me happier than knowing he was OK. He said the same.
Lee didn’t have the longest life ever — hell 47 is a long damn time, but still too early to leave this world. Too early to take such a friendly soul away from Memphis and way too early for me to realize at 34 that I will never see Lee Dog again. Lee was the gentle giant who warmed Midtown’s heart and won over its people. Even in his death, he has sparked a fire in my life once again. I miss Lee so much and I will continue to do so until I leave and join him.
Well Lee, you have infinitely affected us all and for the absolute better, my friend.
This is your story, Lee, and with it you will never be forgotten. Much love, Big Lee Dog, and I’ll spot the quarters for a game of pool when I get there.
Memphians mourn death of formerly homeless friend to many
MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) – Here’s a story my old friend Lee Brown told me years ago:
One Christmas Eve in the late 1980s, STAX recording artist Rufus Thomas heard some loud snoring after parking his car in front of the old Wall Street Deli at East St. and Union Ave. across from where Baptist Memorial Hospital then stood. Rufus tracked the snorts and snuffles behind the deli to find a young Lee Brown snoozing the night away. “Look here,” said the world famous soul singer as he roused Brown from his nap, “watch my car for the next hour while I visit my friend in the hospital and I’ll take care of you when I get back.” So the homeless man stood sentry at Rufus’ car that Christmas Eve. True to his word, the smiling singer who gave the world “Walking the Dog” and so many other STAX hits returned and invited Brown to his home to spend the Christmas holidays. Astonished by the offer, Brown readily accepted Rufus’ invitation and found himself surrounded by the warmth of the loving Thomas family and their many friends. “Rufus told me he’d been down and out himself once upon a time and he understood what I was going through,” Brown explained. That night, Brown says he ate like a king at the Thomas family table.
There are many Lee Brown stories, some 100 percent true, others legend but all kind of sweet in their own way. Is Lee’s Rufus story true? Maybe. It’s definitely a story Lee repeated to me on several occasions and knowing both the once homeless man and the amazing entertainer called Rufus Thomas, I’d like to believe it’s true. Brown, 47, died of sepsis due to a leg infection at his home July 14. I visited with him several times that week, and he told me he had a vision of Jesus a couple nights before he passed away. More on that, as we say on the news, coming up later in this story.
Rufus and Lee had at least one other thing in common: singing! Lee became a regular on the karaoke circuit in Midtown, belting out mostly country tunes with uncommon passion and ability. “This guy could belt out a song like a pro,” said Nicholas D. Aiello on Facebook, one of dozens of people sharing memories of Brown on social media after his death. As a homeless person in Memphis from 1987 to 2007, Brown’s one treasured possession was a small hand held transistor radio that played his favorite music all day long. Brown memorized countless songs and in a way had been rehearsing for his karaoke gigs at Neil’s, Dru’s Bar and elsewhere all day, every day. “I used to go to open Blues Jam on Tuesdays when Neil’s was on Madison when I played drums,” wrote Kyle Ryan on Facebook. “Lee gets up and sings ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ and absolutely killed it. How is this guy not in a band?” Ryan wrote. At MFD Engine House 11 on Union Ave. where Brown crashed on many a cold night, Lee serenaded firefighters between calls. “Lee sang to us on the bench out front of the station,” said now retired Driver Thomas Woodley who Brown nicknamed Sarge. “We got Christmas presents for him and on his birthday: coffee, food, whatever he needed including a pad to sleep or a place to bathe,” said Woodley. Singing won the hearts of Brown’s neighbors at his last address, St. Peter Manor in Midtown. After moving into the high rise in December 2017, Brown sang some of his favorite carols a cappella from his wheelchair at the Manor Christmas party and instantly became a cherished neighbor. Brown had an abiding love affair with gospel music and even wrote some of his own hymns. The big man was a hit at the Calvary Rescue Dinner a few years back when he sang with all his strength, heart and soul to the delight of then Mayor A C Wharton and hundreds gathered at Bellevue Baptist Church. More recently, Brown has sung with the Praise Team at his home church, Sycamore View Church of Christ, where members shared links to his lead performance in the song “Cry Out to Jesus.”
Brown’s memorial service will take place at Sycamore View Church of Christ at 12 p.m. Thursday, July 26 where many more stories about the one time Midtown street character are sure to be shared. There was the time, due to a profound sleep disorder, Brown fell asleep while standing up in the crosswalk in the middle of busy Union Ave. as traffic whizzed by. Brown was wearing only a hospital gown because he’d just been discharged from the hospital. Others may tell about the time Lee spent a bitterly cold winter night on a bench in Overton Park where hours of freezing rain failed to awaken the heavy sleeper. Coming upon the sight of a large man frozen to a bench, an early morning park visitor called 911. Firefighters were unable to dislodge the man from the bench on site. Therefore, they loaded Brown, bench and all, aboard an ambulance and only after arriving at the Med, were able to thaw out both Brown and his bench. Then there’s the one about the wee hours of another cold night that the homeless man spent on the back porch of Scruggs Lighting store which used to stand immediately east of the Starbucks at Union and McLean. It was so cold, a family of raccoons nestled next to the big guy. Brown says he awakened shortly after his porch guests arrived, “but I was too scared to move so we all just went back to sleep,” Brown told me while recounting memories of life on the streets.
Lee Brown might have been the most chronically homeless man in Memphis for twenty years and seven months, 1987-2007. Like many other mentally ill people, Lee shunned shelters for the homeless. Radically independent, Lee reserved the right to shiver through winters or swelter in summer heat, ad infinitum. We had our first encounter in the WMC parking lot, the Memphis NBC affiliate where I’ve been blessed to work now for forty years. Lee was snoring near the front end of my 1988 Mustang. His head was so close to my front bumper, I thought my car might bop him by just shifting it into gear. So I awakened the big man resting on a patch of grass and invited him to move out of the way. He smiled and we started talking. In the 30 years that followed, I learned that Brown had a dysfunctional home life as a child followed by foster homes, group homes and some time in youth institutions associated with Juvenile Court. As an adult, Brown had no criminal record and became friendly with countless police officers who knew places where he liked to sleep: a tiny cemetery located next to what is now Cash Saver on Avalon, a patch of grass behind the Circle K at Madison and McLean, and the breezeway of Idlewild Presbyterian Church on Evergreen near Union Ave. to name a few. Brown passed a criminal background check in 2009 and went through the Memphis Police Department’s 10 week long Citizen’s Police Academy when he became a liaison between the MPD and his Midtown community. “What a gentle giant he was, love this guy,” wrote Mike Harvey on Facebook. “He had the biggest heart of any one person I’ve ever known,” wrote Lynn Duke after learning of Brown’s passing. Indeed, Brown’s singing voice, empathetic heart and humor as a conversationalist won him many friends. “Lee touched a lot of lives in this city,” wrote Ann Bledsoe via Facebook.
In October 2007, the big man asked this reporter to become his “representative payee,” the person responsible for accepting his monthly disability check from Social Security. I agreed to serve in this way but only if Brown would become housed. He agreed (reluctantly). So I paid his rent, other bills and became his personal ATM for more than a decade. Lee was able to rent his dream apartment behind the home of Jeanne and Bob Surratt on McLean. “He kept our house from burning down when a blaze started next door. He called the fire department and then called Bob to let him know there was a problem,” Jeanne recalled of her long-time tenant. Later, Brown lived in Caritas Village in Binghamton where he shared a group home with three other men. After the house suffered severe fire damage, all the residents of the group home, including Brown, moved to a nearby apartment which Lee found claustrophobic.
After 10 years of being housed successfully, Brown chose to go back on the streets. It was an astonishing development. I had just finished reading “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” by Gregory J. Boyle. In that beautiful book, Boyle recounts his experiences with the poor and outcast, mostly Latino gang members in a parish in Los Angeles where he served as pastor. All throughout Boyle’s stories, he invites his reader to stop thinking of the poor as people to be served but instead, to become one with them. “Kinship- not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that,” Boyle wrote. So instead of “serving” Lee as I’d done for thirty years, I became determined to try and see things from his point of view, to walk a mile in his shoes, so to speak. United with other anonymous Lee helpers who were so inclined, we managed to keep Lee alive and sheltered him as best we could for long stretches as the chilly fall turned to winter 2017. On nights he didn’t have a place to stay, he’d sit in 24 hour restaurants like the E’s locations on Union Ave or Poplar and chat with the waitresses while helping to keep the premises secure. In the post 9/11 world, we learned the massive challenges of establishing legal identification for someone who managed to live much of his life with no ID. With the help of many, Lee got a Tennessee State ID on December 1, 2017. We tried and mostly failed to find him a new place to live, somewhere he could afford the rent and have enough left over to eat. It was slim pickings as Lee’s monthly check was a little more than $700. A homeless ministry offered reduced rate access to long term stay motels or apartments that are located in the some rough neighborhoods. We decided against those options and one day drove up to St. Peter Manor where some of my other friends reside. Julie, the helpful manager, listened as I told her some of Lee’s story and asked for an application. Lee used all his considerable charm to make his case during the tenant interview process and presented his brand new state ID. In short order. Lee passed his credit and background checks within a week. He was welcomed as a new resident of St. Peter Manor on December 21, 2017. Now maybe you can see why he sang those Christmas carols with such passion a day or so later. Lee was overjoyed to live at St. Peter’s and the community of residents welcomed him with abiding love. It was a sight to behold.
Lee’s ability to walk disappeared in recent months. Facebook friends like Patty Crawford and Bill Carson generously donated Lee wheelchairs they no longer needed as Lee’s legs weakened. In the last week of his life, Lee’s Pastor Josh Ross presented Lee another generous gift. Ross applied for a special grant and received a check for $1,000 from Bill Russell Ministries. Having managed Brown’s money for many years, I can assure you that $1,000 was like winning the Powerball to our penniless friend. He took his cousins to a favorite restaurant, The Barbeque Shop on Madison and then a shopping trip to Bass Pro Shop where for once in his life, Lee had the money to buy. My call history shows Lee and I talked twenty times the last week of his life. We visited numerous times in person at the Manor in that time. At the very end, Lee was confined to his bed. On Thursday, July 12, Lee told me that he had a vision of Jesus that day and the Lord embraced him for a long time. “He said I would be coming home,” Brown told me with assurance, deeply convinced his encounter with the Master was genuine. Lee said he asked Jesus “When?” and that’s when the vision and the embrace came to an end, he said. But Lee got an answer to his question a little over 24 hours later. It’s another Lee Brown story that you’ll have to decide for yourself is true or not. For my part, like Lee’s encounter with Rufus, I pray that he’s surrounded now by a love so stupendous that he’s moved to song.
Copyright 2018 WMC Action News 5. All rights reserved.
Opinion | Lee Brown a gentle giant, ‘salty saint’ of the streets
Joe Birch, Guest columnist Published 11:41 a.m. CT July 24, 2018 (Link to Article, Commercial Appeal)
Lee Brown was napping on grass adjoining WMC-TV’s parking lot the day we connected. I awakened Lee from his slumbers as he snored perilously close to the front end of my 1988 Mustang. A conversation began that day that lasted 30 years.
In that time, Lee awakened this reporter to the challenges of mental illness, homelessness and poverty. Now Lee Brown’s countless friends mourn his death.
The Medical Examiner’s preliminary report says the formerly homeless man’s earthly journey ended as a result of sepsis due to a leg infection on July 14. He will be remembered at a memorial service Thursday.
Lee was a favorite at St. Peter Manor, a Midtown high rise where he moved on Dec. 21, 2017. A day or so later, Lee sang with all his heart at the manor’s Christmas party and that was that. The big man became an instant treasured neighbor.
“That was one of the happiest days of his life,” said Lee’s pal, Tammie S. Hacker, via Facebook. The large man with a shaved head and stubble beard would ride his motorized wheelchair to the nearby Chick-Fil-A on Union Ave. where he hankered for chicken nuggets and fellowship with a friendly staff.
Lee Brown loved Memphis (Photo: Joe Birch)
“Definitely missing my brother these few days,” said Josh Glenn, a 29-year-old restaurant team member who befriended Lee and, like so many of his co-workers, now feels a void after Brown’s passing.
“Lee truly was one of our ‘Salty Saints’,” said Onie Johns, retired executive director of Caritas Village in Binghamton where Brown lived most of the past five years in a group home.
“Lee was a true example of life’s complexities. He felt deeply and loved unconditionally; he was quick to anger but just as quick to forgive and ask for forgiveness. I was personally blessed to know Lee as a friend and neighbor,” Johns said.
Before he lived in the group home, Lee lived near the Starbucks at Union and McLean in a little apartment behind the home of Bob and Jeanne Surratt. “He was a mess but we loved him,” said Jeanne, who recalled Brown saved their home from catching fire after flames engulfed a house next door.
Indeed, Lee, who was 47, lovingly could be described as a living embodiment of the Charles Shultz’s Peanuts character, Pig Pen. A mental health consumer, Lee was chronically homeless in Memphis for 20 years, 1987-2007. But his heart, angelic voice and empathetic spirit attracted all kinds of friends who came to know, love and feed him.
Joe Birch and Lee Brown (Photo: Joe Birch)
For years, Lee slept in an abandoned truck behind the now razed Neil’s Music Room on Madison Ave. On freezing nights, Brown would slip into Engine House 11 on Union Ave. where firefighters like driver Thomas Woodley shared a hot meal and looked the other way when their regular guest drifted off to sleep.
“Lee was part of the firehouse family, everyone there did what they could to help him and keep him safe, fed and feel at home. One thing we liked for certain is he always looked after our personal things when we were on a call,” said Woodley, 62, now retired.
Others invited Brown into their homes or put him up in motels across the city. For years, Lee took up residence in the breezeway at Idlewild Presbyterian Church where he also served in the congregation’s ministries to the homeless.
Josh Ross, Lee’s pastor at Sycamore View Church of Christ, said, “Lee Brown was one of God’s ways of teaching us that homeless people have names, faces, and stories. We know Jesus better because we knew Lee Brown,” Ross said.
Tragedy in the Homeless Community, “Mourn The Dead, Fight Like Hell For The Living!”
JULY 4, 2018 BY MSPJC VOLUNTEER (Link to Article)
This month HOPE lost a very dear friend, Lee Brown. He was one of the first HOPE members and was well known on the street as a tough guy with a heart of gold, and someone you could count on to have your back. Lee served his country as a U.S. Marine, and in his later life, became a staple of the Binghampton community, where he could often be found conversing and making wisecracks at Caritas Village. Many of the health conditions that contributed too Lee’s deteriorated health were directly linked to the lack of care he was able to access due to his circumstances of poverty and lack of housing. “He was a kind hearted man,“ said Michael Krause, member of HOPE. The HOPE family would like to express our sincere condolences to Lee’s all of friends, family, and loved ones. Rest In Power, Lee. You will not be forgotten.
With the ever present reminders of a harsh summer still upon us, it’s difficult to think ahead to December, when advocates and members of the homeless community will commemorate the lives of those lost on the street, during the annual homeless memorial day. We have lost too many friends and allies, even HOPE members, in the recent past, and unfortunately, many of those deaths could have been prevented by the stability and security provided by housing. We are deeply saddened at the rapid number of deaths amongst our people, particularly because, we know that are solutions to this madness dying on the streets. We have got to stand together to make sure that our most vulnerable can receive affordable housing especially during times of rough weather.
Since this is an election season, we are encouraging our members & supporters to attend candidate forums and ask those who want your vote what they plan to do about people dying on the street, as well as how they will address homelessness in general. Will they support local funding for direct homeless services and new affordable housing? Will they support the development of a Free, accessible shelter that meets the needs and respects the dignity of those experiencing homelessness in our community? Call the Shelby County Commission at (901) 222-1000 and flood them with questions on which candidates have homelessness on their platform. Call City Council at 901) 636-6786 and demand that they finally allocate funding for direct homeless services, and invest in affordable housing.
‘Gentle giant’ finds a home — After two decades of life on the streets, he’s transitioned to volunteering for citizen police
By Lawrence Buser
The Commercial Appeal
Aug. 7, 2011 (Link to Newspaper Article)
As part of his Citizens Police Academy voluntarism, formerly homeless Lee Brown, 40, attends a National Night Out at New Hope Ministries where “Chimmy the safety monkey” advises kids, including Quishawn Addison, 3, on emergency phone numbers and other…
LEE BROWN SURVEYED the site of New Hope Ministries, where he was scheduled to present a police safety skit for children as part of a crime -prevention event in South Memphis.
The competition was formidable: A two -story inflatable water slide beckoned the two dozen children on an evening when the temperature was still 98 degrees.
But Brown, who has faced challenges that were far more difficult in his life, was not worried.
“I have the ultimate secret weapon,” he said with a nod to his long-armed, brown hand-puppet. “A talking monkey. Chimmy the safety monkey.”
Brown and Chimmy quizzed the kids on bicycle safety, crossing streets and emergency phone numbers, finally cutting the National Night Out
program short and surrendering the antsy young audience to the water slide.
All in all, however, not a bad evening for a man who lived on the streets of Memphis for 20 years and seven months.
In 2009, just two years off the streets, Brown passed a criminal background check, graduated from the Citizens Police Academy 10week course and now acts as a liaison between police and his Midtown community.
At the graduation ceremony, an officer gave special recognition to Brown, attracting a round of applause from officers and classmates.
“I turned about as red as a fire truck,” recalled Brown, 40, who after nearly four years in an apartment still is adjusting to life with walls. “The main reason I was out there so long was my mindset was that I deserved that. My selfesteem was zero. My self-worth was zero. Even though I’m not still on the streets, there’s a part of me that’s still out there.”
After long relying on alcohol for his escape from the street life, Brown said he’s been sober for three years.
He still wears his hair in a buzz, about the same length as the stubble of a beard he sports.
Brown survives on a monthly disability check for a variety of ailments, none of which keeps him from working as an unofficial security man, greeter or handyman at several Midtown nightspots.
“He’s worked for us as a doorman, he sings karaoke and he’s been in and around to help out since we first opened in 1994,” said Frank James, owner of The Edge CoffeeHouse at Overton Park and Watkins. “He has never been a panhandler or a bum. He’s always wanted to earn his way and pay for things. His appearance is different, but he’s a smart guy.”
After a difficult home life, Brown lived in foster homes and group homes, dropped out of school after the 10th grade and began running with a rough crowd, which resulted in a number of contacts with Juvenile Court.
Before his 20th birthday, Brown joined the city’s 1,500 to 2,000 homeless, surviving by his wits and whatever aid strangers might offer, including some in blue uniforms.
“We actually got quite a few calls on Lee, but it was always because he was sleeping out in the open; never for anything violent,” said police Sgt. Kathy Gooden, who has known Brown for some 20 years. “When I was on patrol on the midnight shift, I would go around and check on him because I knew where all his little sleeping holes were. Most of the time we just talked about his personal problems and demons he was fighting with.”
When Gooden was promoted last year, she was told by her commander to attend a monthly meeting of the Neighborhood Watch ambassadors where, to her surprise, she was presented with a plaque by the street friend she hadn’t seen in years.
“He actually broke down because he was so thankful that I was one of the officers who cared,” recalled Gooden, who now works in the Missing Persons Bureau. “Lee is just a special person. He’s a gentle giant .”
Brown’s witty stories from the streets sound like standup comedy material.
He tells of a winter morning when he woke up on the back porch of the old Scruggs Lighting at Union near McLean to find three raccoons nestled up against him for warmth.
Another time, according to Brown, he fell asleep on a bus bench after a rain and an overnight freeze left him stuck to the bench. Unable to pry him loose, firefighters had to take him and the bench to the emergency room to thaw.
On a warmer evening, he settled down for a Friday night’s sleep by a building at Union and Kimbrough, but when he awakened the next morning there were red laser sensors criss-crossing just above him. Fearing he would set off an alarm, Brown stayed in the spot all weekend until the security system was turned off on Monday.
“He has a treasure chest of stories,” says longtime friend and supporter Joe Birch. “He may give the uninitiated the idea that he’s a little dull, but he’s smart as a whip and he’s street savvy like you wouldn’t believe.”
Birch, the news anchor for WMC-TV, first met Brown when he was asleep on the station’s parking lot years ago and urged him to get off the streets, mostly to no avail.
“I would try to take him to a homeless shelter and sometimes he would leave 10 minutes after we got there,” said Birch, who also helps Brown handle his money and medicines. “He was institutionalized, and so he simply will not stay. If he would see any authoritative figure telling him to do something, he would run. It hasn’t been easy for him. It was a big deal to get his own place and it was a hard choice.”
Birch introduced Brown as “my formerly homeless friend” when he had Brown in a suit to sing a gospel tune he wrote himself at a fundraising dinner this year for the Calvary Rescue Mission.
“He does cartoon voices, has a great sense of humor and he’s going to be doing our puppet shows for safety for children,” said Kate Sides, Neighborhood Watch coordinator for the Union Station who accompanies Brown to the events. “He’s as pure -hearted as anyone I’ve ever seen.”
Others who know him talk about his uncommon generosity.
“Lee is hands-down one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known,” says Josh Ross, preaching minister at Sycamore View Church of Christ, who has known Brown for three years. “I’ve seen him take the only $5 bill in his pocket and give it to someone else who needed it. I’ve witnessed Lee talk people out of suicide, alcoholism, drug addictions, and I’ve seen him help people choose peace instead of violence.”
So now the once -homeless man who used to keep all his earthly possessions with him in a shopping cart — “my mobile home” — is entertaining children and doing what he can to help those still on the streets, saying he gets as much as he gives.
“I do it now because I get something out of it and someone else gets something out of it.”
— Lawrence Buser: 529-2385
Once homeless man says fallen officer changed his life
July 7, 2011 at 7:37 PM CDT – Updated June 24 at 3:35 PM
(WMC-TV) – (Link to News Article)
The late Officer Tim Warren was known among his friends as a man who liked to help others, and often reached out to those in need.
One such person was Lee Brown, who was shocked by Warren’s death last Sunday in a shooting downtown.
“I’m sad, because this world just lost a front line soldier for God,” he said.
Brown said Warren left a lasting impression on his life.
“When he first met me I was drunk and homeless, but you know that man treated me just like I was a human being,” Brown said.
In fact, Brown was homeless for more than 29 years. While he’s been off the streets since October of 2007, Brown said, he’ll never forget Warren’s kind spirit and generosity.
“That man would give you the shirt off his back and go without just to make sure somebody had something,” he said.
Warren invited Brown to Thanksgiving Dinner at a church in Olive Branch back in 2006.
“There was more food than I’ve ever seen in my life there, and he made sure that I was treated right, well, with respect, and welcomed,” he said.
Warren often ministered on the streets, especially to the homeless. Once, a homeless man made a cross out of toilet paper and gave it to Warren while he was working his beat. To Brown, it was proof of how much Warren was appreciated and respected.
“There’s not many people like that in the world, and they’re so far and few between that when you lose one it, leaves a big void,” Brown said.
Copyright 2011 WMC-TV. All rights reserved.
“Lee became a regular on the karaoke circuit in Midtown, belting out mostly country tunes with uncommon passion and ability. “This guy could belt out a song like a pro,” said Nicholas D. Aiello on Facebook, one of dozens of people sharing memories of Brown on social media after his death. As a homeless person in Memphis from 1987 to 2007, Brown’s one treasured possession was a small hand held transistor radio that played his favorite music all day long. Brown memorized countless songs and in a way had been rehearsing for his karaoke gigs at Neil’s, Dru’s Bar and elsewhere all day, every day. “I used to go to open Blues Jam on Tuesdays when Neil’s was on Madison when I played drums,” wrote Kyle Ryan on Facebook. “Lee gets up and sings ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’ and absolutely killed it. How is this guy not in a band?” Ryan wrote. At MFD Engine House 11 on Union Ave. where Brown crashed on many a cold night, Lee serenaded firefighters between calls. “Lee sang to us on the bench out front of the station,” said now retired Driver Thomas Woodley who Brown nicknamed Sarge. “We got Christmas presents for him and on his birthday: coffee, food, whatever he needed including a pad to sleep or a place to bathe,” said Woodley. Singing won the hearts of Brown’s neighbors at his last address, St. Peter Manor in Midtown. After moving into the high rise in December 2017, Brown sang some of his favorite carols a cappella from his wheelchair at the Manor Christmas party and instantly became a cherished neighbor. Brown had an abiding love affair with gospel music and even wrote some of his own hymns. The big man was a hit at the Calvary Rescue Dinner a few years back when he sang with all his strength, heart and soul to the delight of then Mayor A C Wharton and hundreds gathered at Bellevue Baptist Church. More recently, Brown has sung with the Praise Team at his home church, Sycamore View Church of Christ, where members shared links to his lead performance in the song, Cry Out to Jesus.”
“Lee Brown was a good friend and brother. He had a larger-than-life personality and was always willing to help someone in need. The photos and recorded track he sings with our worship team in the video are a celebration of Lee’s life and ministry. We will forever be grateful for Lee “Dog” Brown.” – Sycamore View Church
Memorial Park Funeral Home & Cemetery Obituary
Lee was born on November 3, 1970 and passed away on Saturday, July 14, 2018. Lee was a resident of Tennessee at the time of passing.
“The main reason I was out there so long, was my mindset that I deserved that. My self esteem was zero. Even though I’m not still on the streets, there’s a part of me that’s still out there.” – Lee Brown
Lee Brown & Zach Waters (2008, Neil’s, Memphis, TN)
Lee Brown & Zach Waters (2008, Memphis, TN)
Lee Brown (2008, Memphis, TN)
Lee Brown (2008, Memphis, TN)
Lee Brown (2008, Memphis, TN)
“The stereotypical view of the homeless is flawed, and no one proved that point better than Lee Brown. Veteran, singer, and soul man, you only needed to exchange a few words with Lee before realizing that he was one of the most genuine people to ever walk the planet. He was known for standing up to bullies, and he appreciated the support he received from the community in a way that made you love him even more. I am so thankful for having the opportunity to meet Lee in 2006 outside of Congressman Cohen’s campaign headquarters. He was a true friend, and his city misses him.” – John R. Marek
“Lee was an ambassador for the homeless.” – Michael Anderson
“Time and again I’m shown that the mystery, the very sweetness of life is in not knowing. Not knowing who or what will resonate, not knowing the how’s and why’s, but remaining open to the chance to feel it all. That’s Lee’s story.” – Willy Bearden
“He has a treasure chest of stories. He may give the uninitiated the idea that he’s a little dull, but he’s smart as a whip and he’s street savvy like you wouldn’t believe.” – Joe Birch
“Lee is hands-down one of the most loyal people I’ve ever known. I’ve seen him take the only $5 bill in his pocket and give it to someone else who needed it. I’ve witnessed Lee talk people out of suicide, alcoholism, drug addictions, and I’ve seen him help people choose peace instead of violence.” – Joshua Ross
“Memphis has a reputation for having a church ‘on every corner,’ but Lee truly was a ‘minister’ to souls lost and found on every corner of the city. He never met a stranger and wouldn’t allow himself to become one.” – David Waters
“Lee was definitely one of our “salty saints”. We were blessed to provide housing for Lee for a couple of years in our community. He helped us practice unconditional love every day in a thousand different ways.” – Onie johns
“Literally hundreds of friends attended his memorial service, a testament to how many lives he touched.” – David Twombly
“Lee was one of the most resilient, kind-hearted, uniquely talented individuals I’ve ever known. His homeless situation, coupled with his “Lee”ness, incited curiosity in my young mind. When the Church would feed him, you could literally see his raw heart through the lens of gratefulness. When he sang, you could see that he was a creation of GOD through is un-tapped talent. I’m not sure why Lee was homeless but the more I think about him and see his impact on our community I can’t help but think that Lee was homeless due to a power far beyond both Lee and me.” – Kevin Redd
“I never formally met this man, but I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who he was. I grew up in midtown where he was a permanent fixture.” – Jennie Tucker
“You didn’t love Lee without learning from him. I hope that all of us who loved him will put into practice the things he’s taught us.” – Callie Lillard
“Lee will be missed all over this country. He had a way of impacting lives in just minutes. Truly a gift of his.” – Josh Waller
“He was only 47…..he spent 20 of those years living on the streets of Memphis after being shuffled through over 20 foster and orphan homes during his youth. He survived some really hard times in his life and, by his own admission, made a lot of mistakes and bad choices along the way…..he would not be considered successful by most people’s standards. He often struggled with depression and feelings of worthlessness. But he had a ton of friends all over this city from all walks of life……we rarely went anywhere together that he didn’t see somebody he knew. He was loved by many, despite often being pretty high-maintenance. He would do anything he could to help someone in need or trouble. He had the gift of encouragement. He was smart and resourceful…..he often had to be just to survive. Lee knew how to love and accept you regardless of your position or circumstance in life……and that’s an example for all of us to follow.” – Randy Lillard
“He was a gentle giant. Even though he had a hard time in his life, he had a big heart and he had friends from all walks of life.” – Tammie S. Hacker
“Lee had a heart larger than the state of Tennessee and a soul deeper than the Mississippi River. He inspired lives all across Memphis, including my own. The gentle giant who warmed Midtown’s heart and won over its people, has left our city with one incredible, inspiring story to tell. ” – Zach Waters (Founder, CEO of A Lee Dog Story)
“RIP Lee Brown! He watched over me when I couldn’t and I was privileged to watch over him sometimes too. “ – Stephanie Bruister-Shelby
“They treat homelessness like it’s a crime. But, little do they know, them or anyone else they may know, ain’t nothing but a heartbeat away from the same situation. ” – Lee Brown