Tom Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but last Saturday – his
152nd birthday – his soul went marching on along Capitol Drive from
Milwaukee to Pewaukee Lake and back.
For many years up to his death in 1955 at age 85, the man hailed as "a familiar and amazing figure to thousands of Milwaukeeans" and "Milwaukee's patriarch of walking and bicycling" celebrated his birthday by setting off afoot for Pewaukee at exactly 12:01 a.m. on May 7 from the grounds of the WTMJ-TV/Radio studios on East Capitol Drive (where he usually rode his bicycle from his home at 2946 N. 2nd St.).
Arriving in Pewaukee by dawn, thanks to a pace that left most companions by the wayside, Brown would take in the sights by the lake for a while, have a drink of water or milk, and then hoof it back to the city. The round-trip distance: 36 miles.
While perhaps his most publicized activity, Brown's annual birthday jaunt was far from his most notable endurance feat. Into his mid-80s, he frequently hiked and biked to Chicago and back, pedaled and walked all over the state, and according to one account he often bicycled all the way to Door County just to pick cherries.
For decades he was a participant in the Amateur Athletic Union's yearly national championship walking races of up to 30 miles, never winning but always bringing home a trophy for being the oldest contestant to finish the race.
The local media's favorite adjective for Brown was "picturesque," especially after he grew out his snow white hair and flowing beard in a contest at the 1950 Milwaukee Sentinel Sports Show and decided to keep it that way because it kept him warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
"The elderly athlete reveals that he is frequently saluted as Santa Claus as he strides or whizzes along," wrote Richard S. Davis in a 1953 newspaper piece, "but the truth is that he more closely resembles Walt Whitman."
Born in Milwaukee in 1869, Thomas J. Brown never owned an automobile – which makes his 44-year career as an accountant for the Standard Oil Company slightly ironic. For all those years he hiked to and from work, a six-mile round trip.
When Standard Oil gave him a pin commemorating his 40th anniversary with the company in 1929, Brown decided to mark the occasion by walking to Chicago to visit a daughter living there. (His wife's reaction: "You're crazy.")
Wearing new, thick-soled shoes, the long-distance rookie arrived in the Windy City with grape-sized blisters on his feet, and after that Brown always whittled the leather soles off his shoes for maximum comfort. His preferred style of footwear was none at all, but "usually he wears shoes to spare his family and friends embarrassment," according to one newspaper profile.
After he stopped adding up figures for Standard Oil in 1933, the retired Brown started adding up miles in earnest, trekking 15 miles on weekdays and up to 60 on Sundays.
He walked to Madison and back, and in the winter it was nothing for him to walk to Brown Deer Park, almost eight miles from his home, put in an hour of ice skating on the pond, and then walk back home. A bicycle racer in the 1890s, he also made two-wheeled tracks all over the city and state after he resumed the long-distance pedaling he'd given up when he got married in 1897.
Over the years the miles and the press notices piled up – and Brown was as diligent about the latter as the former.
"Strictly as a matter of self-protection, the sports editor must report that Tom Brown brought another trophy home Monday," reported R.G. Lynch in The Milwaukee Journal on May 19, 1947.
"Tom does not trust the Associated Press to cover any walking event... He always telegraphs the results (collect) and always the last line of his telegram reads: 'Tom Brown, Milwaukee's old-time walker, finished and was awarded a trophy.' If this is left out of the paper, about five minutes after the edition hits the street a little white-haired bundle of fury bounces into the office and confronts the sports editor."
A few years later old Tom would complain that "I attract too much attention," but the fact was that when the spotlight didn't follow him, he chased it. In 1951, when Gen. Douglas MacArthur was welcomed home – he'd lived here briefly in the late 1890s – with a parade, Brown pedaled his bike alongside MacArthur's limo on its route through downtown. Ditto, when Gen. Dwight Eisenhower paraded through town a year later as a candidate for president.
It was another media event when Brown water-skied for the first time at age 83 on the Milwaukee River, calling it "the most fun I ever had." For years he was also a regular when the local Polar Bear Club took its annual New Year's Day plunges into icy Lake Michigan.
The 120-pound Brown was also a staunch vegetarian who, after his wife's death in 1952, got rid of the gas stove in his home because "If the Lord had wanted us to eat cooked food, we'd find it already cooked by nature."
But he was never shrill or a scold about his views on diet and exercise. The closest he came to pressing advice on people was when he inserted a single sentence at the bottom of the weekly bulletin he mimeographed for St. Gall's Catholic Church at 2961 N. Martin Luther King Dr.: "Walk yourself to health."
But he also didn't shrink from defending himself against the notion that he was seriously nuts. When Racine cops spotted the 85-year-old bearded wonder walking through town on his way to Chicago, they took Brown in and brought in a psychiatrist to check him out.
"What's wrong with a man using his legs as God intended them to be used?" the "antediluvian octogenarian," as one newspaper called Brown, demanded to know. They let him go, and not long afterwards Brown was cheerfully expounding his views on Steve Allen's television talk show in New York City and riding his bike up and down Broadway.
Three teenagers accompanied Tom on his birthday walk to and from Pewaukee in 1954. He made the jaunt with his usual vigor and good humor, but divulged to his companions the feeling that he wouldn't be around to take another birthday constitutional the following year.
He was right. On March 9, 1955, Brown was pedaling his bicycle down the middle of the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct – though the police frequently warned him against that, he considered safer than staying to the right – when an oncoming car hit him head-on and sent him flying into eternity.
"At least it wasn't the infirmity of age that finally caught up with the old guy," consoled a newspaper editorial titled, "He Sipped From the Fountain."
"Tom Brown meant a lot to Milwaukee," the editorial continued. "The sight of his thin, steely shanks pumping like pistons, elbows akimbo, luxuriant whiskers drifting in the breeze, keen eyes aglint – it gave a lift to the dull spirit of passers-by."
You don't have to walk all the way to Pewaukee Lake, but do something
appropriately gaudy to commemorate the spirit of one of Milwaukee's most
Not shaving doesn't count.