Congratulations to Harry Brown, 2016 Honorary Chair
If you’re interested in donating to the Harry A. Brown, Getting to Zero Fund,
It is an extreme honor to announce the 2016 Honorary Chair, Harry Brown.
Every now and then in life, someone comes along with the ability to share every unique gift that you could possibly need in that specific moment in time.
Harry Brown is that person. He is that person for his friends, he is that person for me personally, and he has been that person for WNCAP for the past 16 years. His unique, skillful intuition, directs him into action when a need arises. A friend needs a helping hand, Harry is there. Volunteers need assistance, Harry is there. WNCAP needed new fundraising strategies, Harry was there. You get the picture, Harry is always there not only making things happen, but using his unique leadership style to coach, advise, teach, encourage, inspire, and what some of us refer to as “gently nudge”.
He is the most dedicated, and inspirational person that I know. His dedication to help people living with HIV/AIDS is insurmountable, the way he inspires those around him to want to work harder, give a little more, dig a little deeper, and be a better person is humbling.
Harry has given us so much not only in the millions of dollars he has raised for WNCAP, for which we are forever grateful, but to each of us he has given a unique gift that we’ll carry in our hearts for a lifetime.
We love you Harry Brown, we honor you, and we thank you for being the incredible person you are. Congratulations Harry!
– Pam Siekman, RYH Chairperson
Friends, two years ago there was an amazing article about Harry featured in the Asheville Citizen Times, please take a few moments to read this story, in doing so, you will soon understand what so many of us already know, and why we love our dearest friend, Harry Brown.
CITIZEN-TIMES, April 12, 2014
It’s hard to say no to Harry Brown.
When the silver-haired dynamo walks into your restaurant, art gallery or other local business flashing his contagious smile, it’s likely you’ll soon be parting with a painting, a piece of pottery or some of your money. In some cases, a lot of money.
Brown is a savvy salesman of major league proportions, sometimes leaving customers in his wake scratching their heads and wondering what just happened. But rarely is there buyer’s remorse, because what Brown is selling is well worth buying.
Since arriving in Asheville in 2000 after an epic post-retirement career as a volunteer raising millions of dollars for AIDS-related nonprofits in Atlanta, he has been the guru behind the WNC AIDS Project’s two signature events: the Raise Your Hand auction of donated works of art, and Dining Out For Life, in which local restaurants and breweries — 115 this year — donate 20 percent of their revenue to WNCAP on the last Thursday each April.
For business owners, particularly those with high-end galleries and upscale eateries, 20 percent is no small chunk of change. But restaurant owners wait in line to give away their money to WNCAP through Dining Out. Largely because it’s Harry Brown asking for it.
“Harry makes you want to give, and he doesn’t make it easy to say no,” said Michel Baudouin, chef-owner of the French restaurant Bouchon on North Lexington Avenue, who was one of the original restaurateurs who worked with Brown on the first Dining Out in 2002.
“Harry’s the type of person who makes donating a joy,” said John Cram, owner of New Morning Gallery, Blue Spiral 1 and other local businesses, who was among the first to step up with donated works of art for the inaugural Raise Your Hand auction in 2001.
“He makes you glad to participate, and he makes you want to give,” Cram said. “Harry walks in with that charm he has and cuts right to the punch line. He’ll say, ‘You can guess why I’m here — let’s figure something out that can work,’ and you’re right in there with him. It’s a joyful thing.”
While Brown’s finesse at inspiring communitywide support for the life-saving and life-changing work of WNCAP has left the fundraising events on solid footing, this year’s Dining Out for Life will be bittersweet. When the 2014 edition ends as restaurants close for the night on April 24, Brown will quietly move into an advisory role, leaving the day-to-day work to a new leader.
At 76, he needs to recover from surgeries on both knees and a shoulder, and he says it’s time to spend more time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, read some books, watch the waves from his getaway condo on an island off the coast of Cancun, and show up to help WNCAP when he’s needed — but not every day as he’s done for the past 13 years during his “retirement.”
“I’ll always be an adviser, and I have faith that with the right guidance, (Dining Out for Life) will continue to be a great success,” Brown said. “After all, no person ever does these events alone — I’m just the guy you see in the front, and behind me are the hundreds of volunteers who are making me look good.”
It’s true that volunteers are the soldiers who execute a mission, but a visionary like Harry Brown doesn’t come along every day to lead them.
There are reasons he scored the presence of Elton John for the first AIDS Walk in Atlanta in 1991. Why he was asked to carry the Olympic torch in advance of the summer games there in 1996. And why the WNCAP office in Asheville now bears the name The Brown Center. According to his admirers, they all have to do with tenacity, passion, tireless dedication and a heart for helping others.
Brown’s launch into the fundraising limelight was kind of an accident, borne from his urgent desire to help combat the terrifying wave of AIDS crashing over Atlanta in the late ’80s, when fear, misinformation and misunderstanding were the tenets of the killing disease.
Having retired in 1989 after 34 years with AT&T, Brown soon became “restless” and at the same time “deeply concerned and affected about my many friends who had contracted HIV and were leaving us much too soon.”
Brown’s friend Sandra Thurmond, then executive director of AID Atlanta — the largest AIDS agency in the Southeast — and later President Bill Clinton’s AIDS czar, put him to work as an assistant to the development director who was in charge of organizing the first AIDS Walk in Atlanta.
Soon after, the development director succumbed to AIDS, leaving Brown — a first-time fundraiser — to be lead
organizer of the inaugural event. The walk raised more than $568,000 to support 11 AIDS service agencies in the Atlanta area, with more than 22,000 people marching in the city’s streets to support the effort.
Having Elton John as celebrity chair of the walk didn’t hurt, and it didn’t happen by accident; even as a novice organizer, Brown was not inclined to take no for an answer.
Brown caught wind that John was staying in a certain Atlanta hotel, put together a package of information about the AIDS Walk along with an impassioned plea for John’s participation as celebrity chair, and took it to the hotel’s front desk.
“He’s not staying here,” the desk manager said. “And I said, ‘I’ll leave it for him anyway,’” Brown said. Thirty minutes later, John called. The star agreed only to tape some public service announcements and attend a news conference, but ended up making a surprise appearance at the massive after-party in an Atlanta park following the walk.
“The Indigo Girls (whom Brown also snagged) were on stage singing one of Elton’s songs, and he just came up to the stage and grabbed a mic and sang with them,” Brown said. “Then he sat down at the piano and sang several more songs — if I’d known, I would’ve had a damn good piano for him.”
The AIDS Walk was just the beginning. It also was the last time Brown would be paid for his fundraising efforts — all the rest has been volunteer.
Out of the box
Over the next nine years in Atlanta, Brown continued his passionate quest to raise money to prevent AIDS and help those living with HIV, and he did so in highly creative ways.
He left the AID Atlanta organization in ’92, taking on a “less stressful” job as a bartender at Burkhart’s, a large pub in midtown that soon became a new venue for Brown’s fundraising for local AIDS charities, including Project Open Hand, a meals-on-wheels-type nonprofit for HIV/AIDS clients.
Using his phenomenal networking skills, Brown snagged touring Broadway stars at the Fox Theatre and convinced them to come to Burkhart’s and other local bars for fundraising events.
He put together wildly popular “Homecoming Queen” competitions in which people would dress in drag with personas such as “Tequila Mockingbird” and “Tipper Gourmet,” with each dollar donated considered a vote for the title of queen.
One year Brown put together a smash show pitting the Atlanta Falcons cheerleaders against a similar number of “drag folks” from a gay bar called the Armory, dressed in cheerleading garb and calling themselves the “Armorettes.”
“We did all kinds of events in different bars all over the city, and I left no opportunity untried to raise money,” Brown said. “The Armorettes and the Falcons cheerleaders show was one of the most fun things we did.”
In 1992, Brown started an auction called Art Fest in the parking lot of Burkhart’s, near Ansley Square, to benefit Project Open Hand. The first event raised $9,000; in its eighth year, the amount raised was $130,000.
John Fritchie, the former development director for Project Open Hand, who now works in Asheville as a fundraising consultant, met Brown in the early ’90s and said his friend’s name “was synonymous with fundraising success.”
“What I remember most about Harry back then was his magnetic personality and his inexhaustible commitment to helping people in need,” Fritchie said.
“From being a meal delivery volunteer to organizing Art Fest, from captaining a team for AIDS Walk Atlanta to serving every conceivable role in (Atlanta’s) Dining Out for Life, I’m not sure any other single person on a grass-roots level had done more for Project Open Hand’s clients, or has done more since, than Harry.”
Fritchie said Thurman, the former AID Atlanta director and Clinton’s chief AIDS staffer, “often spoke of Harry as one of the most dynamic and successful community volunteers she had ever known.” And it surprised no one that that Brown was tapped in ’96 to carry the Olympic torch to cheers of “Harry! Harry! Harry!” from thousands on the streets.
“But it was with (Atlanta’s) Dining Out for Life that Harry found perhaps his greatest fundraising and community-building passions; Harry volunteered as an ambassador, recruited others, engaged sponsors, recruited restaurants and perhaps most important of all, had fun, and any restaurant he hosted was almost always the top contributor,” Fritchie said.
“Harry’s fundraising success, I believe, is a credit not to his determination and drive — of which there is a seemingly endless supply — but to his belief that anyone who can help, should help, in whatever capacity possible,” Fritchie said. “For Harry, no act of caring has ever been too large or too small.”
Growing up in a housing project in a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., Brown didn’t have much modeling for acts of caring
from his mostly absentee parents. It was a landmark occasion that his mother attended his high-school graduation when he finished school early at age 16; he rarely saw his father after his parents divorced when he was 15.
Even without parental guidance or exhibits of love, young Harry stayed on the right path and never got into trouble. There was no money for college, so he began working as a machine operator at AT&T, climbing the ladder and ultimately retiring as a top account executive.
In 1961, he married a woman he had dated in high school, whose husband had died in a tragic accident, leaving her with four small children, including a newborn.
“At age 23, I was all of a sudden a father to four sons ages 1-4, whom I adopted and loved as my own,” Brown said. The couple had three more children over 16 years of marriage — during which he was promoted and transferred to Atlanta — but divorced in 1977, with two of the three children still at home living with Brown and the other staying with his ex-wife after the divorce.
“I’d always felt there was someone else for me, and I wasn’t quite sure if it was a man or a woman,” Brown said. “I did struggle with my sexuality most of my life, but privately.”
In 1979, Brown met David Kanis, a mortgage company owner, and they have been life partners for the past 35 years. Brown remains close with his seven children, 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, all but one of whom lives in the Atlanta area, and Kanis has been embraced into the family fold since the beginning, Brown said.
New city, new opportunities
In 2000, Brown and Kanis decided to leave Atlanta, or at least buy a second home for getaways from the rat-race of the big city. They had done the tourist thing in Asheville several years earlier and were drawn here again.
“We decided, why don’t we bite the bullet and make this our home, not our second home,” Brown said. “There’s something about Asheville … just walking around, people looked you in the eye and said ‘how are you,’ and they really meant it. You didn’t feel a need to clutch your wallet to your side walking around at night.”
It was only a matter of weeks before Brown was tapped to take part in the first auction for the former The Health Adventure, raising a sizeable amount of money for the children’s museum. He then began shopping around to see where else his skills might be useful, and landed on WNCAP’s doorstep.
“They were putting together that year’s Raise Your Hand auction, and I sat in on the meetings to offer any help I could lend from my experiences,” Brown said. The next year, naturally, he was named chairman, part-time auctioneer and emcee for the event, and held that position for nine years, during which the auction raised more than $800,000 for WNCAP’s programming.
Three years into life in Asheville, surrounded by the ever-growing restaurant scene, Brown realized “this city was the perfect fit for an event I assisted with in Atlanta, called Dining Out for Life.”
Brown huddled with chef Eric Scheffer of the former Savoy, and now Vinnie’s Neighborhood Italian, Dwight Butner of Vincenzo’s and Baudouin from Bouchon, and they hatched a plan to partner with the Asheville Independent Restaurants association to put on the city’s first Dining Out for Life.
“That first event raised $23,000 thanks to the support of 21 generous restaurants in Buncombe County, and the next year I expanded it to include restaurants beyond AIR and doubled that amount,” Brown said.
“Over the next 11 years, it has raised over $1.2 million, with last year’s record high total of $165,000,” he said. “And this year the event has expanded to 115 restaurants and breweries in eight WNC counties, reaching all the way up to Highlands.”
Proud of WNC
Brown says the words proudly, but not for himself. For him, it’s all about the generous business owners who happily give up significant proceeds each year, the armies of volunteer ambassadors who meander through the restaurants and urge patrons to add a few extra bucks to an envelope on the table, and the diners who make a point to eat out once, twice or three times on that day, and still give a little more when ambassadors ask.
Brown loves to report that Asheville’s Dining Out raises more money, per capita, than any other city in the nation, including San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Chicago and Atlanta. Less than 7 percent of the money raised goes for expenses — almost unheard-of in the nonprofit fundraising world. “And as far as raising the extra money (in envelopes), we’re No. 2 in the country in actual dollars.”
“It just speaks volumes about the generosity of people here in WNC, and it makes me so proud to be here,” Brown said. “People here are very socially conscious, and while it’s so important to raise the funds, almost on an equal level is raising the awareness the AIDS is still around, people are still dying from AIDS.”
Former WNCAP executive director Ron Curran, who came on board about the time Brown did, when the agency was in perilous financial straits, said he always felt that Brown was “the angel on my shoulder, because he had these skills and expertise to fundraise, to encourage people to give of themselves and to donate, and he helped to make WNCAP solvent.”
Love in action
Current executive director Jeff Bachar said WNCAP’s mission is to prevent new cases of HIV/AIDS and to promote self-sufficiency in people living with HIV by providing client support, prevention education and advocacy activities, “guided by the belief that all people are entitled to equal access to health care and promotion.”
“It’s been said, regarding HIV and AIDS, that love is the cure,” Bachar said. “Harry’s love has made it possible for us to prevent countless new cases of HIV; more clients are now self-sufficient, thriving individuals and more people have access to care thanks to Harry’s courageous fundraising,” he said. “Harry has helped us live and breathe our mission.”
Several years ago, deciding to focus his efforts on Dining Out for Life and needing more time to serve in leadership roles with the national Dining Out organization, Brown turned over chairmanship of the Raise Your Hand auction to WNCAP board chair Pam Siekman, serving as her mentor and still offering guidance when she asks.
Siekman speaks with reverence about her friend, whom she said “cares so deeply for those who are both affected and infected with HIV/AIDS.”
“I’ve seen Harry with tears in his eyes as he listens to WNCAP clients speak of the challenges they face by living with AIDS, and I know that it breaks his heart to hear of struggle and stigma, but this fuels Harry to keep doing what he does best — make money and increase awareness,” Siekman said.
“For me, and those of us who have the privilege of working closely with Harry, I keep my notebook out all the time. I know that every phone call, every late-night email and every interaction with this man is a learning experience,” she said. “Harry just makes you want to be a better person, and he is truly a gift to this community.”
Ever the fundraiser
As Brown prepares to slow down a bit, heal from his surgeries, enjoy his family — “I want the young ones to know who the heck I am” — and read some books, he said he can’t imagine spending the past 25 years in any other way. He’s not entirely certain he won’t get restless again and find some new adventures to pursue, but he is certain he’ll be available to help WNCAP when he’s needed.
“Sometimes I’ve worked a 60-hour week and it’s been, wow, I’m really tired or worn out, and all it takes is for someone to walk up to me, pat me on the back, and say, ‘Thank you, Harry, for what you do,’ and then it’s all even,” he said.
After such a rich life, Brown said the high point was having the Brown Center dedicated in his name after the fourth Dining Out.
“That was one of the most awesome things that ever happened to me,” he said softly. “I got to rub elbows with Elton John, I got to carry the Olympic torch, but having a building named after you while you’re still alive is pretty damn good.”
Brown said he “never started out saying to myself, ‘Hey, I want to be a fundraiser,’ and set out to do it … approaching AID Atlanta, my only desire was to try to make a difference in the age of AIDS.”
“I truly feel I was given a gift, and I feel so lucky or blessed — depending on your beliefs — to have been able to put it to good use,” he said. “My focus now is simply to pass it on to others.”
In typical Harry Brown fundraising fashion, he makes his formal farewell by gently nudging people to give just a little more time and money.
“It would be incredible if every person who goes out for Dining Out for Life — and that’s probably 10,000 or 11,000 people every year — could just donate two hours of volunteer time a week to a cause; that’s 22,000 multiplied by 52 weeks a year, and just imagine what that could do to make this a better world,” he said.
“I’m also hopeful that people will put an extra buck in those envelopes this year,” Brown said. “If you put $1 in last year, put $2 in this year … this being the last year I’m chairing, I will appreciate that.”