Despite gloomy cancer prognosis, Custer couple still building legacy of family, outdoors, love

Last Updated by Kevin Woster on
Sue and Dick Brown in their country home near Custer

It took us a while to get to the metastatic breast cancer. The dying part just had to wait.

Sue and Dick Brown had too many other things they wanted to talk about. Like, say, the living part. They’ve done so much of that over a half-century together.

To be clear, the living part isn’t over. They’re still doing it, every day, every hour, every minute. But now there’s an even sharper awareness, a deeper sense of appreciation for every dawn, every dusk, and every moment in-between.

“We’ve gone through the sadness,” Sue says, sitting casually on their living-room couch with her hands speaking through needlepoint to her grandchildren and a time after she is gone. “We’ve gone through the stages of grieving. And finally you get an enriched acceptance of what’s going to happen to you, and you have a joy of life.”

Enriched acceptance — that’s what strikes you, rather than sadness or gloom, when you walk into the big, sunny living room of their rough-wood home in the forest a few miles outside of Custer: It’s a home full of enriched acceptance, along with the joy of life.

Outside in the surrounding forest and meadows, the diagnosis hasn’t changed a thing. It all looks much as it was when they moved here from Sioux Falls in 2008: Rocky Road is still worthy of its name; neighbors are still few and far between; white-tailed deer still move gracefully through the Ponderosa pine; ducks still preen and dabble on the pond a few yards from the house.

“When we first drove in to look at this place, a pair of mallards came over and dropped in to land on the pond,” Dick says. “Sue started to cry, and I said, ‘I guess that’s pretty much it.’”

Pretty much. Never had they been more certain of a move than they were of this one. Known for their active roles in Sioux Falls promotion and development over decades, they relocated across the state to be near their son, Matt, now a circuit court judge, and their daughter-in-law, Joy Falkenburg, a family practice doctor.

Oh, and did I mention the grandkids? What more could grandpa and grandma need to pull them west.

“Matt and Joy had two kids and were going to have a third,” Sue says. “We loved them more than anything. So we moved.”

They retired, too. But not for long. Instead, an opportunity landed as surely as those two mallards on the pond. And they jointly sought and won the single development director’s job for the South Dakota Parks & Wildlife Foundation.

Two Browns for the price of one, and then some.

What they’ve done in their dynamic family job sharing since has helped re-configure the face of South Dakota’s outdoors. Before we get to that, though, let’s get back to the joy of their life together, and where it all began.

Fifty two years ago, the young man from Dell Rapids and the young woman from Illinois met on a first date arranged by William O. “Doc” Farber, the widely admired political science professor at USD in Vermillion.

Farber taught the likes of Tom Brokaw, Larry Pressler, Bill Janklow and Pat O’Brien, shaping the careers of the well-known and the hardly known at all, and inspiring a commitment to government, policy and public service.

He also inspired, from time to time, a little romance.

“Sue’s mother and Doc put this thing together in 1965,” Dick says. “And I had to go along with it just to get a date.”

Which made Sue smile without looking up from her needlepoint: “From what I hear, that’s probably true.”

What’s true for certain is that Sue and Doc Farber both hailed from Geneseo, Illinois, where Farber was a friend of her parents. So when Farber got to know a gregarious student with clear potential at USD, a guy named Dick Brown, the matchmaking began. So did the love. And it has only grown with time.

There are differences, of course. She’s pragmatic, studious and generally subdued. He’s outgoing, energetic and generally not. Subdued, that is.

But from the beginning they shared not just an attraction to each other but also a passion for community service and development, and a respect for government that in today’s world seems a bit like an anachronism.

Their academic achievement and interest in government led them to Washington, D.C.  There Sue worked for Republican Congressman Tom Railsback from the 19th Congressional District in Illinois. Railsback served on the House Judiciary Committee and would soon be known nationally as one of six Republicans to vote for a least one article of impeachment against President Richard M. Nixon.

Along with a job with the Capitol Police — where he packed a .38 revolver — Dick’s work experience in D.C. included time on the staffs of Democratic U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Republican Sen. Karl E. Mundt of South Dakota.

But they were inclined toward the Midwest, and soon found themselves working  in Omaha, where Dick was executive secretary of the Missouri River Basin Commission. From there, Dick was hired on to run the new Downtown Development Corporation in Sioux Falls. And Sue busied herself with three kids, a home consulting business on community development and economics and eventually service on the school board.

By 1995, though, she took over directing the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, where she admits, with characteristic reserve, that she was pretty successful. Unencumbered with such reserve, Dick argues that she was a lot more than that.

“Let’s see, the Community Foundation saw a growth in assets from $5 million to $60 million,” Dick says. “Who was there? Well, I guess it was Sue Brown. I guess that’s who was there.”

Only Dick matches Sue’s involvement with service groups, charitable organizations and arts and recreation efforts. And he added four terms in the South Dakota Legislature and a position on the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission as he worked his way through professional leadership roles in in banking and financial services.

All the while, they were interested in and working to promote outdoor recreation, which came as a family imperative to Dick. His father, Ellsworth, had a profile in the outdoors that stretched across South Dakota and beyond. He was president of the Dell Rapids Sportsmen’s Club and the South Dakota Wildlife Federation in the 1950s and 1960s, a period when those groups were doing essential work to protect wildlife and fisheries and the hunting and fishing traditions.

Dick has tried to build on that family legacy through his years as a state legislator and a GF&P Commissioner. It also inspired him as chairman of the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce to push hard for an outdoor education center in Sioux Falls that also would house the state Game, Fish & Parks Department regional office.

That public-private fundraising effort produced the Outdoor Campus along the Big Sioux River in southwest Sioux Falls, which opened in 1997. It also began the multi-year effort to buy land for the eventual development of the Blood Run State Park along the river southeast of Sioux Falls.

This was the very kind of work Dick and Sue would continue in their development efforts for the Parks and Wildlife Foundation, where their mix of very different skills made one truly effective team.

“She’s the brain trust,” Dick says. “She’s so good with the writing and organization, and the business side of things. She’s a great motivator, too.”

And of Dick, Sue says:

“He’s the gregarious asker and I’m the one behind the scenes writing stuff and doing the business side of the enterprise,” Sue says.  “I did some asking, too. But to me the hard part, the crucial part, is the ability to sit across the table from someone and inspire them, and speak to their passions, and that’s what Dick does.”

It’s both simple and complicated, Dick says.

“No one gives money until you ask them. You have to ask them,” he says. “All the stars started to line up for us. Sellers were willing to sell their land. People were willing to support projects that made sense. Government institutions were willing to be involved.”

Dick isn’t shy, but nonetheless Sue says he underplays his particular gift for asking for money in the right way to the right people, at the right time for the right project.

“And when I think of the donors he has brought to the table over the last nine years, there are not many people in South Dakota that could have accomplished the same thing, because of who he knows, how passionate he is and how persistent he is,” she says.

Persistence from both has paid off in millions of dollars donated to outdoor projects. They include major initiatives like the Outdoor Campus West educational center-GF&P office complex, which opened in Rapid City in 2011, a new visitor center at Custer State Park and the ultimate development at Blood Run State Park.

But there are many other projects under way, although there is a bit of a pause in new project development. And those emerging projects will continue to benefit from the Browns and their passionate work for the outdoors.

Retired or not, they still work on that legacy, blending in with one that’s even more important.

“I’ve got less time to leave a legacy than Dick has. But we are both still in the legacy building years of our lives. And one legacy is certainly family, and having children who carry on that family tradition of building better communities,” Sue says. “And the other legacy, of course, is joining with many others in seeing projects and programs develop that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.”

Still, the pause in new project starts with the foundation coupled with the spread of Sue’s cancer made this the right time for a real retirement. But they didn’t get away without a goodbye bash, including a governor’s proclamation declaring Oct. 5 as Dick and Sue Brown Day. They celebrated during the state Game, Fish & Parks Commission meeting in the Black Hills.

“It was very rewarding,” Dick says. “What that day meant to us was not so much about us directly but about the wonderful journey we have been on together and, as was mentioned that day, with all our great partners.

“This really wasn’t about Dick and Sue Brown,” he says. “It was what we saw and thought and how we found people to say ‘yeah, why not?’”

So they’ve got reason to feel good as they enter the final stage of their long, loving journey together, in the place they know they’re meant to be at this stage.

Their family has grown since they came to the Black Hills. Daughter Terra and her husband, David Reynolds, live in Valparaiso, Ind., and have two children. Daughter Jennifer and her husband, Mark Holloway, live in Minneapolis and have two children. The families make regular visits to the home off Rocky Road.

And, of course, Matt and Joy and their three children, who are now old enough to ride a four-wheeler over the hill and across the meadow to their grandparent’s house, are regulars.

“I’d rather they’d walk,” Sue says. “But the four-wheeler’s a lot more fun.”

Joy often brings a book for Sue, in print or on tape. These days they usually have to do with the reality that is coming sooner for Sue than she hoped for or expected.

“Joy, who is Catholic, is about the best end-of-life counselor I’ve encountered. And when I finish one book, she’s got another one for me,” Sue says. “They’re primarily Buddhist. The one I’m listening to now is Five Invitations. And it talks about dying and how to die with spirituality, how to die with peace.”

The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully is by Buddhist teacher Frank Ostaseski. Those who love the book say it helps remove fear of death and deepen the experience of life. Which is exactly what Sue is working on as she prepares, without gloom, for the end of her own life, whenever it comes.

Meanwhile, she’s living that life, following grandkids on cross country meets, sticking with Pilates and yoga classes, working on a cook book project for the family for Christmas, making quilts for the grandkids.

“The usual stuff retired people do,” Sue says, but also speaks of something more.

“Joy sees knowing that you’re going to die as a gift, and an opportunity, if you want to use it that way,” Sue says. “And we have so much to be grateful for, so why live in sadness?”

To the contrary, Sue feels like she lives in heaven. And whatever awaits in the beyond, what she has here is priceless.

“Heaven is all of the great moments we have as a family, with each other, especially in the outdoors,” she says. “Heaven is here. And for us, it’s all around us.”

In their place on Rocky Road.

“We never feel the need to take a vacation, because living here, this is a vacation,” Sue says. “For me, it’s hard to go anywhere else. The house is perfect, the land is perfect.”

The perfect place for a nearly perfect journey together to end.

But that’s the dying part. And it’ll have to wait. They have some joyful living left to do.



The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of SDPB, Friends of South Dakota Public Broadcasting, or the State of South Dakota.