In Memory of Al Brown
Al Brown, our Head Chef since 1987, passed away on Christmas Eve. Mindy, Jessica, Jackie and I were having dinner with family friends at a restaurant in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, while on vacation when an email from a TLC alum brought me the news. I guess that it was only appropriate that I found out while eating a great dinner. Al had given us many of those.
Al had been the Head Chef at Camp Oxford/Guilford in Upstate New York until it closed. We needed a chef and my good friend, Barry Kingsley, who owned and directed Oxford/Guilford, called to introduce me to Al. Originally from the Chicago area, Al had worked as a young man cooking aboard the Ferdinand Magellan, the train that carried then President Harry Truman on his famous whistle stop campaign across the country. He spent the bulk of his professional life as a chef aboard the country’s great railroad cars and learned from the best of chefs in that end of the profession before he settled down in Jacksonville, Florida where he spent his winters. For more than forty years, his summers were at camp – the last 23 of them at Timber Lake.
He was a camp character – and he was my friend. Every summer, sometime during pre-camp, Al would arrive, begin barking orders, and take over “his” kitchen. I would always joke with him that it didn’t feel like “camp” until he arrived. “Where are my granddaughters?” he’d growl at me, referring to Jessica and Jackie.
His language was colorful, to say the least. He was the only person in camp who could spout a four-letter word in front of me without retribution. This summer we laughed about the time, back in 1996 when I came to him to tell him that after his many years of complaining about our sub-standard kitchen he had to work in that I was finally going to build him a brand new one. “Al, I’m spending a million dollars next year to build you a brand new, state-of-the-art kitchen – I hope you’re happy” I said to him. Deadpan, he replied “XXXX that! Give me $500,000 and save yourself some money!”
His Sloppy Joes were my favorite lunch and still are (he made sure we had the recipe a few years back when his health first started to get precarious). And, even though he hasn’t done much actual cooking over the past two years, his presence in the Kitchen brought it to life. Our International Staff grew to love him (after they figured out what he was saying in that heavy Southern accent of his peppered with profanity). Many of them visited and stayed with him at his home in Jacksonville before returning to their own homes after camp.
But it wasn’t just the Kitchen staff that he’d entertain. He was a regular on the TLC Play House stage with his Louis Armstrong-like rendition of “It’s A Beautiful World” and his playful personality with our campers. He gave us his last rendition this past summer to a standing ovation.
When we said goodbye this summer as I left camp after post-season (Al always left after me) he told me that this would have to be his last summer as he thought it was jut going to be too much for him to return given his health. But when I last spoke with Al, just a few weeks before he died, he told me that he had changed his mind. Sick or not, he couldn’t think of just being in Jacksonville for the summer – he had to return to his summer home. We decided that he’d teach special classes in cooking when he felt up to it. But it was not to be.
Al Brown, who cooked for a President and thousands of campers was more than a great chef. He was an institution, a fixture, a character and a true camp personality. His cooking will be replaced – but Al Brown will never be. We’ll miss him and always remember a good and loyal friend.
– Jay S. Jacobs