Love Story: He chose marriage over professional baseball career
Gary Brown has more than 1,000 baseball caps displayed in his garage. Numbered and cataloged by date, place, and his acquisition of it, each one has a story. But the tale of his 60-year marriage to his wife, Noreen, outshines the story of even 1,000 baseball caps.
Noreen likes to joke that he picked her up off the street. It was the summer of 1951, she recalled, “I was walking up Division Street with two friends, and he picked us up.”
Gary was with a couple buddies who knew the girls and they gave them a ride to Noreen’s home. “I knew the minute I met him, I wasn’t going to let him go,” she said.
When asked about that first meeting, Gary said, “I didn’t say anything. I was the shyest guy at Rogers High School.”
Noreen, who had just graduated from North Central High School, said, “I didn’t like the Rogers boys because they were rough.”
A few minutes spent with Gary changed her mind. The next day that shy boy showed up at her house, and they became inseparable.
On their first date they went to A&W. “I bought her a hamburger,” Gary said. “She ate the whole thing!” He gave Noreen a sidelong glance. “I thought she’d share.”
A talented baseball player, Gary had already been recruited by the New York Yankees. He’d received offers from Boston and Philadelphia, as well. After graduating from Rogers in January 1952, he left for spring training with a Yankee farm club in California.
Though the thought of a baseball career tempted him, marriage to Noreen proved the greater pull. After spring training he returned home to his sweetheart, and they married April 23, 1952.
“They (the Yankees) offered me $150 a month, plus room and board,” Gary said. “I didn’t think it was enough so I took a job for $1 per hour parking cars and pumping gas.”
He also served in the Naval Reserve. Less than a year after their marriage, he was called to active duty because of the Korean War.
Saying goodbye to his pregnant wife, he set out for San Diego. It turned out that the Navy was more in need of his baseball talent than they were of his mechanical skills.
“I played first base for a Navy team,” Gary recalled. “We played 150 games.” And while he was playing ball for the Navy, Noreen gave birth to their daughter Debbie in November 1953.
When Debbie was six weeks old, she and Noreen traveled to California to meet her daddy. Gary served two years of active duty and three years in the Reserves.
The family settled in Spokane, where they welcomed a second daughter, Dicki, born in April 1956. Her arrival marked the only time Noreen can recall getting really mad at Gary.
“I was ready to come home from the hospital and it was the opening day of fishing season,” she said. “He asked, ‘Do I have time to go fishing and then come and get you?’”
She replied, “You’d better not!” And Gary arrived promptly to bring them home.
In 1957, Gary joined the Spokane Fire Department, where his cooking skills were widely touted. “I started piddling around in the kitchen when I was 11,” he said. “I probably should have gone to school for it.” Instead, he received on-the-job training, feeding hungry firefighters.
A third daughter, DeAnna, completed their family in 1959. His daughters greatly appreciated his culinary talents because Noreen admits to having none of her own. “He’s always done all the cooking,” she said.
Gary recalls preparing 30 firehouse meals in a row without duplicating a meal. In exchange for his cookery, the other firefighters cleaned his truck for him. They knew they had to keep it spotless to ensure future meals.
Busy years ensued. Though Gary had give up a professional baseball career, he still played city-league ball. He played fast-pitch softball for 30 years and slow pitch for two years. “I stopped playing fast pitch when every time I hit the ball and got to first base the first baseman already had the ball!”
Gary’s passion and skill for the game was recognized in 1989 with his induction into the American Softball Association’s Hall of Fame by the Spokane Metro Softball Association.
Noreen was busy, too. In addition to attending Gary’s games, she worked for Inland Audio Visual Co. for 25 years.
All of their daughters graduated from Rogers High School, and in 2009 their grandson graduated from the school as senior class president – just like his grandpa had done 57 years earlier.
After 27 years with the Fire Department, Gary retired in 1984. “I retired in November and thought I could run around and play,” he said. He flashed Noreen a grin. “Then she retired in January!”
The couple managed a variety of apartment complexes and then spent several years managing the Rockwood Lane Retirement Community. That’s where the couple’s flair for entertaining blossomed. With the help of their family, they staged Christmas and Flag Day programs among other events.
For the past 20 years, the Browns have wintered in Yuma, Ariz., where their hospitality and penchant for entertainment is legendary. They host stick-horse races, organize luncheons, and initiated an annual all-Spokane schools reunion. Folks who graduated from Spokane schools gathered. Gary is the master of ceremonies for the program, and “Miss Tilley,” a character Noreen created, always makes a guest appearance.
Their Mead home rang with laughter as the couple related their adventures. Noreen told the story of a Valentine she received several years ago. She woke up to find a paper heart with the words “Noreen, I love you, Gary” printed it on it. “It looked like he’d colored it,” she said. “I showed it to everybody!”
A few days later, Gary asked her to please stop showing the Valentine. “I cut it out of the paper,” he confessed. It turned out it was a Valentine from a different Gary to a different Noreen.
When asked what it takes to have a successful marriage, Gary said, “Have a big garage.”
They laughed and Noreen said, “Seriously, we give each other space! We don’t go to bed or wake up without a kiss or saying I love you.”
Then she smiled and reached for her husband’s hand. “He’s my best friend.”