Brown's route marked by turns of good fortune

Product of rural South has earned recognition as a top money manager

March 25, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

It was a decision by Eddie Brown's daughter, Tonya, not to follow in her father's footsteps that led to the largest gift in the history of the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

Brown once hoped that his elder daughter - who has an M.B.A. from Harvard - would take over his investment company, Brown Capital Management.

"She spent eight years in financial services," Brown said. "But she said she wanted to work on the creative side of her brain."

Tonya Ingersol, 35, was accepted last fall into the college's Hoffberger School of Painting, an exclusive graduate program run by the renowned Grace Hartigan.

Eddie - that's the name on his birth certificate, though friends call him Ed - was asked to serve as one of two parents on the Board of Trustees. He saw MICA's plans for its expansion and decided to help out, committing $6 million, three times the size of MICA's previous largest single gift, $2 million from an anonymous donor.

Brown's remarkable life is full of such serendipitous twists, enough to fill a Dickens novel.

Born in 1940 to a 13-year-old mother in Apopka, Fla., raised by grandparents in the type of poverty that relatively few in this country experience today - no electricity or running water - Brown is now one of the most respected money managers in the country.

The 21 employees of Brown Capital Management, headquartered in a renovated mansion at 1201 N. Calvert St., handle almost $6 billion in investments. To become one of its clients requires an investment of $20 million, though you can buy into a mutual fund for $10,000.

When Brown and his wife, Sylvia, go to Florida these days, it is to fly to their condominium in Palm Beach.

"Sylvia is from rural Virginia," Brown says. "In our wildest dreams, neither of us ever thought we would be in this position."

It might not have happened were it not for the nurturing Brown received at the segregated school he attended in Florida.

His grandfather picked fruit in the citrus groves. His grandmother worked in one of the many nurseries that produce houseplants.

"Apopka calls itself `The Foliage Capital of the World,'" Brown says. "That's on the sign when you come into town."

Brown remembers his grandmother taking him into Orlando, pointing out the people dressed in white shirts and ties, telling him that if he got an education, he could dress like that and have a nice job behind a desk in an office.

He was a star at school and was in the 10th grade by the time he was 13. His teacher told him about her alma mater, Howard University. She said he would like it there.

Brown's grandmother died that year, and he moved to Allentown, Pa., where his mother had found work.

He entered an integrated school there, and the administration wanted to put him back a grade and make him take the industrial arts curriculum.

"I guess they saw a black kid from the rural South, and that's what they thought," he says. His mother fought for him, and he stayed on the college prep path. When he graduated at 15, he applied to only one school - Howard.

He studied engineering there and met a fellow student, Sylvia Thurston of King George, Va. He graduated in 1961 and went into the Army. He and Sylvia married the next year.

Brown worked for IBM as an electrical engineer, earning a master's degree in that subject in night classes at New York University. He left IBM in 1968 to get his master's degree in business at Indiana University. He graduated into a job with the foundation that manages the money of the family that established Cummins Engine Co., the huge diesel manufacturer in the small town of Columbus, Ind.

That family has an interest in architecture and has underwritten the architect's fees for the town's public buildings if designed by prominent architects.

The result is a town that in 1991 was ranked as the country's sixth-best city for architecture by the American Institute of Architects, behind Chicago, New York, Washington, San Francisco and Boston. It has buildings by I.M. Pei; Eliel and Eero Saarinen; Gunnar Birkerts; Skidmore, Owens and Merrill; and others.

The Browns came to Baltimore with two young daughters in 1973 when Eddie was hired at T. Rowe Price. Five years later, "Wall Street Week With Louis Rukeyser" was looking for a specialist in his field, and a colleague recommended him.

"I think they were also looking for an African-American," he says.

He has been a regular panelist ever since and was inducted into the show's Hall of Fame in 1996.

"There are some interesting people in there - Milton Friedman, Peter Lynch, John Templeton," he says with evident pride. "I was the only person inducted that year."

Rukeyser is effusive in his praise. "I think the world of Ed," he says. "He is certainly a role model to African-Americans, but his appeal goes beyond any question of pigmentation.

"He is smart, he has character and should be an inspiration to anyone of any color, gender or ethnicity as to how to go about building a career."

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