Gun robs pupils who found hope in warm smile

MICHAEL OLESKER

September 16, 1990|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Francois Browne gave up $7 and his life last week, and it got him five paragraphs inside the daily newspapers.

We're learning to take murder a little too casually around here. Browne, 50, was Baltimore's 207th homicide victim in 1990. A year ago, the figure was 185. At The Learning Center, where Browne worked, it's as if a member of everybody's family died. Elsewhere, numbness has set in with the mounting of the bodies.

Browne was the evening supervisor for The Learning Center in the 1200 block of West Baltimore Street, the city's program to help adults who dropped out of school long ago and want to earn their high school equivalency diplomas.

"This place is so empty without Francois," a math teacher named Cathy Permut was saying at week's end as she sat outside a classroom. "We just keep waiting for his car to pull up."

It's not going to happen. An hour before he was killed, Browne was talking to students. One of them, DeCarlo Ferguson, 23, remembers thinking, "I hope I do something as decent with my life as Mr. Browne's done with his."

Nine o'clock that night, Browne was walking along the 1200 block of West North Avenue, on his way to a late dinner, when he was jumped from behind by two young men. They shoved him to rTC the ground and rifled his pockets of about $7. Then they shot him three times in the head and sprinted off, where a bystander thought he saw them jump on a bus at North and Druid Hill.

The details are left to the homicide cops. The rest of us shudder for a moment and move on to other news. Murder mostly ceases to be front-page stuff when it happens at the rate of nearly one a day.

"This was nothing particularly unusual," said city police homicide Lt. Robert Stanton. "They only got $7, yeah, but a lot of times, there's very little take. It's an arbitrary situation. They don't know what the victim's got when they nail him."

What Francois Browne had was more than $7. He had a heart that embraced. The people who enter The Learning Center walk in with trepidation. They dropped out of school years earlier and dropped into lives that never worked out. They feel overmatched and out of place heading back to classrooms, the scene of past traumas.

For a lot of them, Browne was the guy who made them feel welcome.

"I was so scared when I walked in here," Geraldine Berry was saying Friday. She is 48 and dropped out of school in the sixth grade. In the ensuing 35 years, she's scrubbed floors and cleaned office buildings. Returning to school carried not only academic challenge but emotional anxiety.

"I've always been a person that was a slow learner," Berry said. "My first day here, I didn't know if I'd stay or leave. But Mr. Browne was there for me from the first day. Any problem I had, he always wanted to help. He had a friendly voice and a smile. And he'd say, 'You don't have any reason to stay home tomorrow. You be here.' So I always was."

Her words were echoed again and again from students at The Learning Center who saw Browne as a combination educator and father figure -- not only to his own son, but to his students.

"Men like him don't come easy," said Paulette Lynch, 35. "My firstday here, I was due at 6:30 but I came at 5:15, I was so scared. And there was Mr. Browne, and he was talking to me and making me feel comfortable. He said he'd always be there for me. He was like open arms for me."

Annie Jones, 28, composed an essay in which she called Browne "the man I never knew," because she'd never met anyone with his sense of compassion.

One of Browne's colleagues, Linda Berky, remembers being with Browne once when they met a woman who'd been identified as being HIV-positive for AIDS. Others were backing off in discomfort and fear.

"This woman had just gotten the news," Berky said, "and she was breaking down in tears. And Francois just hugged her and hugged her while she cried. And that's how I remember him, big and strong and caring."

The murderers among us do not care. Sixty percent of the homicides involve narcotics traffic of some kind, where the cops find a guy lying in the street with 10 bags of heroin in his pocket.

We tell ourselves: That kind of killing doesn't affect me. It's another culture. But the murder of Francois Browne hits closer to home. This was an innocent man taking a walk. This was a couple of street hoods with a gun and a desire for somebody else's cash, and that makes it a murder that makes everybody feel violated.

"We have a few things working for us," Lieutenant Stanton said. "A few witnesses gave us stuff."

At The Learning Center, that's only a secondary concern. To people trying to put their lives together, Browne was a kind of spiritual glue.

"He was just a beautiful person," said Theresa Evans, 33. "He was strong; he was encouraging. He was the strongest black role model I ever knew, but he helped black and white people and told us all how important school was.

"People wanted to quit, and he'd sit you down and talk to you. He'd say, 'It's hard in this world, but you're gonna make it if you don't quit on yourself.' So I'm not gonna quit on myself.

"I'm gonna get my diploma. And I know Mr. Browne's gonna be looking over my shoulder, and he's gonna be proud of me. And that gives me a little comfort, because right now it feels so empty inside of me."

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