During his decades as a guidance counselor at Bayport-Blue Point High School, James C. Browne Jr. made it a point to stand in the hallway as students changed classes, calling their names and joshing with them.
“He had a magic with kids — a charisma that made it comfortable for them to talk to him,” said William Smith, an assistant principal at the school in the 1970s. “He was a presence in the entire building, which is unique for a guidance counselor.”
Browne, 86, a lifelong Ronkonkoma resident, died Thursday night after a 35-year school career and a life in which he sailed, traveled and shared his knowledge of literature, culture, history and philosophy with generations of students, friends and others.
“He was one of the most genuinely caring people I have ever met,” said Jim Morgo, a former chief deputy Suffolk County executive who once taught with Browne. “He was great with the smart kids, but he also had a gift for dealing with the nonacademic ones, helping them find the right career path and just getting through life.”
Morgo recalled Browne took students on sailing trips and on one got deeply involved discussing European history with a youngster who later became an aide to President Jimmy Carter’s chief foreign affairs adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Smith remembers another time that Browne also continued to extensively counsel a student after he was jailed for a killing.
“He always went the extra mile,’” he said.
Friends also recalled Browne’s “sense of merriment” as a frequent punster who once wrote a parody of “West Side Story” for a school scholarship fundraiser.
But Browne, a devout Catholic, also taught a humanities seminar each year that brought in community leaders to teach students how to deal with issues of morality.
“He felt it was important for student to be able to reason and think through their ideas,’ said Marge Vahey, who taught with Browne.
Born in Brooklyn, Browne was raised on Long Island as one of four children. He graduated from Seton Hall High School in Patchogue and earned a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. He later received master’s degrees in English and guidance counseling, the family said.
He began working for the district in 1953 as an elementary teacher at Blue Point School, but spent most of his career as a high-school guidance counselor. He was one of the founders of the Suffolk Guidance Counselors Association and was a director of the Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society.
Growing up, Browne loved sports and played second base on his high school baseball team. He also played ice hockey and did ice boating on Lake Ronkonkoma in the winter and was a lifeguard on the lake in summer. In college, he was an usher at Radio City Music Hall.
As a young adult, Browne began to suffer from arthritis, which limited his athletics, but in his 30s he took up sailing, taking his 24-foot boat around Long Island, up the Hudson River and as far away as Nantucket. While never married, Browne maintained close ties with his nieces and nephews, taking them to plays or on sailing trips. Nancy McCabe Russell of Longmeadow, Massachusetts, said her uncle would clip and send her articles he thought were interesting.
Other survivors include a niece, Maureen McCabe LaPlaza, of Albertson; a nephew, Kevin McCabe, of Miller Place; eight grandnephews and nieces; and three great-grand-nephews and nieces.
A wake will be held Sunday at Weber Funeral Home in Lake Ronkonkoma from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. A funeral Mass will be held Monday at 10 a.m. at St. John Nepomucene Roman Catholic Church in Bohemia. Burial will follow at Lake Ronkonkoma Cemetery.