Robert "Bubbie" Brown awaits the arrival of a class to Skype...

Robert "Bubbie" Brown awaits the arrival of a class to Skype with a group from Ghana on Thursday, Feb. 15 in Riverhead. Credit: Tom Lambui

Robert “Bubbie” Brown. Simply drop the name anywhere in the Riverhead area and it’s sure to draw a smile, along with words of respect and appreciation.

Brown, 83, has devoted nearly his entire life to enriching the community, from his work with local youth to his involvement with the First Baptist Church of Riverhead and the regular poetry readings he hosts. By his count, he currently has a hand in at least a dozen different projects in the Riverhead area.

“I guess I feel lucky that people seem to like me and are willing to listen to my ideas,” the Riverside resident said with a chuckle. “It’s kind of always been that way. I don’t know why, really, but it certainly helps me feel blessed.”

Felicia Scocozza, executive director of the nonprofit Riverhead Community Awareness Program, isn’t surprised. “He’s a caring individual who sees family as the pulse of our community. He’s so involved behind the scenes that it’s hard to imagine a community program he doesn’t support or contribute to in some way — and he always has a kind word to pass along,” she said. “He’s a driving force behind many successful community initiatives.”

In addition to his work with the Community Awareness Program, which aims to prevent youth substance abuse and promote mental health, Brown co-founded Poetry Street, a program where anyone can read their original works, and is involved with The Butterfly Effect Project, which aims to empower young girls. Recently, the program launched a competitive step and drill majorette team.

Brown also regularly attends and offers his ideas at Riverhead school board meetings; spearheaded the Riverhead Speaker Series, in which students in grades four through eight have opportunities to learn from successful community leaders and graduates of Riverhead schools; and has been integral in the First Baptist Church’s dream of fully building out its Family Community Life Center — a stand-alone community hub that will be open to the entire Riverhead populace. All of these programs, he said, are close to his heart because, in their unique way, they strengthen the family bonds that build a stronger community. “I’m all about this community, this town,” he said.

GREAT MENTORS

As Brown tells it, he’s been lucky to have great mentors and supporters on his journey, including his parents, who he said worked hard to keep him out of trouble; his wife, Aramentis; John Lawrence Bateman at Brookhaven National Laboratory; and the Rev. Charles A. Coverdale, pastor of First Baptist Church, where Brown has worshiped for nearly 40 years.

“Dr. Bateman set me on a good life track,” Brown recalled. After graduating high school, he said, “I was lost. I had no plans to get involved with community causes or go further with school. He taught me I had something besides sawdust between my ears and set me on a lifelong quest for truth and knowledge.”

Brown had been working as an orderly at the lab when Bateman asked him to join his team in 1969. Within months, he said, Bateman began encouraging Brown to compute standard deviations and to design experiments.

“Dr. Bateman’s areas of research included metastatic mammary cancer and low-level radiation effects,” Brown explained. “Working with him helped me realize I could do anything in life I wanted to. Imagine me, a man who never went to college, tackling this stuff! I learned from Dr. Bateman there are many avenues to get to where you want to be in life.”

After Bateman left for another job at Boston University, Brown said he joined the laboratory’s histology department, which involves the microscopic study of tissues and organs, as a technician. He later worked for administration at the lab and retired in 2001.

One eye-opening experience Brown recalls was working on a project in the Marshall Islands that aimed to understand the physical effects radiation from atomic bomb fallout had on people in Micronesia. “Twice a year we went there to administer physicals and gather information on the population. It was devastating to see what those people endured because of our bombs,” Brown said.

LEADERSHIP CONFERENCE

Another pivotal moment in his life came when the reverend sent Brown to a conference to learn how to use his “God-given gifts” to improve his community. “It showed me talents I took for granted that I could use to help others, and opened my eyes to how involvement with the school board can be a powerful tool for community change,” recalled Brown. “Once I learned how much community is intertwined with the school system, I couldn’t let it go. To this day, I continue going to school board meetings and offering my ideas as a representative of our church.”

Coverdale believes Brown’s ability to engage people, combined with hard work, has helped him grow into an important community leader.

“I’ve been at our church 41 years, and I’ve watched Bubbie Brown develop into one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever met,” Coverdale said. “He’s gone from being a low-key member on the outer fringes of our church in his younger years to being involved in many of our community outreach programs. It started with sports and working with kids, but he just kept developing to the point where he is now Deacon Bubbie Brown, and I’m so proud of him.”

Brown has used his creativity to write poems for the church, and is committed to helping the congregation open its community center, Coverdale said.

“His drive to see the establishment of our Family Community Life Center has been truly impressive,” the reverend said.

Tijuana Fulford, founder and executive director of The Butterfly Effect Project, is equally thankful to have Brown in her stable of supporters.

As a Black man, Brown “understands the problems of our youth today because he experienced local challenges across several eras of living here, and he fights with every fiber in his body to make a difference for the better,” Fulford said. “He’s on the front line of every important community cause whether it impacts him or not because he sees our community as one living entity.”

Fulford notes that much of Brown’s help is offered behind the scenes. In particular, she said he ensures local program organizers are made aware of learning opportunities and potential benefits throughout the community. “With his vast network of connections, he finds programs like ours ‘a seat at the table’ where we can do the most good,” she said. “He’s also a direct link to the community at large for information on topics like scholarships and job openings.”

"Bubbie" Brown with members of The Butterfly Effect Project at...

"Bubbie" Brown with members of The Butterfly Effect Project at Riverhead Free Library in January. Credit: Morgan Campbell

‘SO MUCH LOVE’

Despite Brown’s tendency to shun the spotlight, the Riverhead community has showered him with a steady stream of recognition for his community involvement over the years. Among the many awards he’s received are the Omega Psi Phi Chi Rho Chapter Pride for Fatherhood Uplift Award and the Star of the Community Award from the Kiwanis Club of Riverhead in 2012. In 2019, he was selected as a Suffolk County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Award honoree, and this past February was chosen to give a speech opening Black History Month programming at Peconic Bay Medical Center.

“It’s funny how these accolades just keep coming,” said the Class of 1958 Riverhead High School graduate, “but I think that happens as people see you getting older. I appreciate every one of them, of course, but there are plenty of people in this town just as deserving as I am. Growing up, I never imagined I’d see so much love come my way.

“One of the most amazing things about all this is that I’m still learning,” said Brown with a smile. “When you collaborate with people like Rev. Coverdale, Felicia Scocozza, Tia Fulford and our school personnel, you can’t help but pick up ideas. The things these people do — the programs they run — are just beautiful. If I can amplify their powerful messages in some way, I’m going to do just that.”

CHOOSING A CAUSE

To that end, Brown suggests others find a program or a cause to support — whether they live in Riverhead or elsewhere — and work to make their community stronger. “Initially, it helps to align participation with a reason you can get behind,” he advised, “but the more you participate, the more you’ll realize how many just causes are worthy of your support.”

Brown, a poet, started Poetry Street with Susan Dingle and Maggie Bloomfield in 2014. It is a “venue where every voice is heard,” he said. “People come to the Riverhead Free Library, or they attend online, and read what they’ve written, express what’s important to them. It’s an opportunity to say what’s on their mind without judgment. Every community needs that kind of outlet.”

Brown reads a poem at a Poetry Street open mic...

Brown reads a poem at a Poetry Street open mic at Riverhead Free Library. Credit: Morgan Campbell

A WINDOW ON GHANA

The Riverhead Speaker Series, Brown said, serves another need. As part of the program, Brown said local students are connected via Skype with a class in Ghana.

“Our students growing up have no concept of what Africa is all about,” he said. “Usually, on the news, you’ll see something about kids starving or wars. But Africa can also be a beautiful place, with amazing culture, lifestyles and history.”

In other sessions, students have met with Riverhead graduates who have gone on to work in banking, medicine and law enforcement. One guest was Marshall Jones, a mechanical engineer at General Electric who pioneered the use of lasers for industrial materials processing. In 2017, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “These people show our students what is possible if you believe in yourself,” Brown said.

Lori Koerner, assistant superintendent for elementary education and education services in the Riverhead Central School District, praised Brown for his work in the schools.

“Community partnership and involvement are crucial for our students because they foster a sense of belonging for them when they are out in our community,” she said. “It also allows them to see their community members being part of their community journey — and Bubbie Brown certainly leads by example.”

Scocozza echoed that sentiment. “He always seeks to understand more about the issues in the community, and he’s quite generous with his time, knowledge and experience,” she said. Brown participates in the Community Awareness Program’s annual Say No to Drugs March and coalition Meet and Greet, and is involved in the Riverhead Community Coalition for Safe and Drug-Free Youth as its faith-based sector representative, she added.

“Every community needs a Bubbie Brown,” said Scocozza. “Here in Riverhead, we’re lucky to have the original.”

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