Longtime commissioner looks back on decades of service to community
When Palatka City Commissioner Mary Lawson Brown is asked where her energy comes from, she immediately picks up pictures of her family and the conversation becomes a history lesson.
Brown, whose 36-year run with the city ends in early January, and her family have a rich history in Putnam County that goes back even farther.
Her grandparents opened a Black hospital and funeral home, serving Putnam County residents and people from as far as Penney Farms and Hawthorne. Her grandmother, Mary Lawson, a friend of Mary McLeod Bethune, sparked a drive within Brown to work for and with the community.
Another character-building moment was when teachers at her Jacksonville boarding school, Boylan Haven High School, told students if they weren’t let in the front of First Baptist Church for choir they were going home.
In the early 1980s, Brown was busy raising her children. Her foray into politics began when a local auditorium near Jenkins Middle School was about to change hands and a Fifth Street home with an older resident was in talks to be condemned. Brown fought for both issues.
That’s when two friends and Palatka Daily News reporter Butch Prevatt asked her to run for city commission, she said.
“I said, ‘Get out of here. Don’t talk that junk to me,’” Brown laughed. “They pushed and pressed me.”
Brown, who turns 85 next month, ran for a seat on the city commissioner in 1984. She recalled Prevatt rushing to her house on election night and telling her to head to City Hall. The turnout for Brown, who refers to her supporters as “The A-Team,” was much higher with her grassroots efforts. She became the first woman and Black person on the commission. She shared the dais with four white men and there were clashes, Brown said.
“They really thought they were going to say (to me), ‘Vote now and say yes.’” Brown said. “I got enough of my grandmother in me that I said, ‘No, I think I’m going to do what’s best for the city.’”
She’s fought passionately to keep the Rodman Dam, to keep Palatka’s train station and to acquire water taxis at the St. Johns Riverfront. Brown is also well-known for her cooking and baking, making a point to visit city employees with some sort of baked goods.
The Rev. Karl Flagg was Palatka’s mayor from 2000 to 2011. Brown was affectionately known as the city mother, Flagg said, looking after her family, the city. He said her three decades of public service were excellent and effective, but he expects she won’t stop advocating for the city when she steps away from public life.
“She’s done a phenomenal job making sure Palatka was known outside of the North Florida region,” Flagg said. “When you talk to people from the Florida League of Cities, Mary Lawson Brown is synonymous with Palatka, Putnam County.”
Commissioner Justin Campbell has sat beside Brown on the dais during his six years in office. He called Brown the perfect mentor.
“She’s that person I know that I can go to,” Campbell said. “She’s dedicated herself to the advancement of our community. I know she’s not going to be going far and will be active in a different role.”
Ed Hedstrom was city attorney for about 20 years and sat next to Brown. He described Brown as circumspect, passionate and a legend in the city.
“She made sure she understood both sides of issues and I think always came down on the most equitable side of any issue,” Hedstrom said. “I always had great respect for her.”
Allegra Kitchens, a former city commissioner and Brown’s friend for many years, said Brown did what was best for residents. Brown put her heart into the city, Kitchens said, and her energy is like a whirlwind, always trying to improve the quality of life in the city.
“The first time I met her, I knew she was somebody special. She just had that aura about her,” Kitchens said. “She is the best ambassador Palatka will ever have or has ever had.”
Kitchens, Campbell and Hedstrom said Brown was fond of giving a slight kick under the dais during meetings to emphasize something going on.
“I’ve been kicked several times,” Campbell said with a laugh.
Brown explained it’s hard to speak during meetings.
“Ed, I got him. I did it to (City Manager Don Holmes), too. It’s not a kick; it’s a touch,” Brown said, tapping her foot against her coffee table to demonstrate. “We can’t talk to each other (during meetings), but you want to go, ‘Did you hear what they said!”
After a long career that has seen her win the Florida League of Cities Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and dozens of other honors, Brown initially wasn’t going to run for office again in 2016 but was drawn back by commissioners’ insistence. But this year she decided she had enough.
Willie Jones won the seat in November after a runoff and will replace Brown on the dais Jan. 4.
“I think we’re in good hands,” she said of the city commission.
Looking to the future, she said the city has lost a lot of young people, which led to small businesses suffering. A busy riverfront and downtown, a business incubator and people helping each other are what she wants to see.
Brown never trademarked her saying “We’re Better Together,” which is often repeated by commissioners. Nobody ever gets anything done with bickering, she said, but sitting down and communicating can lead to compromise and solving problems.
“If you just fuss about (the problem), nothing gets done and you don’t achieve anything,” Brown said.
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