Esther “Hon” Brown (1917-2010)

April 20, 2010

Esther Brown, longtime executive officer of the Bay Area Post of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, died on Friday, April 16.  She was the widow of Archie Brown, a Lincoln vet and well-known radical labor activist, who died November 23, 1990.

Esther’s parents were Jewish immigrants, escaping the harsh conditions of czarist Russia.  Her parents were political, and her dad, Louis Matlin, had spent time in the czar’s jail, where he contracted tuberculosis, and wasn’t expected to live very long. They eventually found their way to the United States, where they were advised to seek a warm, dry climate for his health. They settled in Ontario, California, where they had a small farm, and eventually a rose-growing business

Esther was born February 10, 1917, the youngest of six children, and she was always called “Hon.”  Early on she was drawn to progressive causes. She met Archie when she was still in school, at a YCL meeting held at the family house in Ontario.  After high school she came to the Bay Area to live with one of her sisters, and through her sister’s crowd she ran into Archie again. They were married in 1936.

The Spanish civil war galvanized the couple. Hon had grown up on a farm and knew how to handle all sorts of equipment and wanted to volunteer to drive an ambulance with the international brigades.  She was bitterly disappointed to be turned down — evidently the risks were so great that they were not taking any married couples. That’s how she explained it to us, anyway. Archie did fight in Spain, and the anti-fascist cause informed the rest of their lives.

Their marriage endured several long separations: Archie fought both in Spain and in World War II, and he lived “underground” during the McCarthy era, as did other members of the Communist Party hoping to avoid arrest. Hon was the one who kept the home fires burning. Their lives settled down after McCarthy was discredited, and in 1956 they moved to the house where they lived the rest of their lives. There was never a time when they did not have their hands and minds directed toward making the world a better place for working people.

Hon was a tireless supporter of her family and her causes.  She worked as a secretary, she was an almost-daily swimmer, she loved to travel, she was beyond generous. Hon and Archie opened their home so many times — to raise money for their political projects, to take in stray friends for a few days or a few months if necessary, or just to enjoy a good party with lots of music.

There’s no way to list all her activities and contributions.  In the early days, they were especially devoted to the People’s World, the newspaper of the Communist Party. Later, Hon was the secretary-treasurer of the Bay Area post of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, dedicated to fighting fascism in all its manifestations. During the 1990’s, she went openly to Cuba to protest the travel ban to that country and was among several who had their passports temporarily taken from them.

She encouraged all her children to take music and/or dance lessons, which enabled them to play and sing for pleasure and professionally.  Her four children have continued to be active in organized labor, the peace movement, and other socially relevant activities. We were taught to follow the golden rule, to abhor racism, and to make ourselves useful. We were always out on a picket line, at a peace demonstration, at a fund-raiser, at a folk music concert.  We can’t say enough about what a loving, caring, supportive mother, friend and comrade she was. Hon is survived by her children, Doug, Susan, Stephanie and Betsy, by eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren (and one on the way), by her cousins, nieces and nephews, and the large extended family she has gathered over the years.