Robert Richard Brown, Jr. – Bob – spends a lot of his time since retirement in his office, one of a few furnished rooms in what used to be a hotel near his home.
Sitting behind a large desk, with photographs of himself and his father in similar Cessna-type airplanes around him, Brown said he does “not a blasted thing” since retirement.
“It’s a big change. I’m bored to death,” he said.
Brown was born in El Dorado in 1925, in the midst of the city’s oil boom. He said the Great Depression, which hit the country four years later in 1929, never hurt El Dorado quite as badly as it did other areas in the United States.
“The area was more prosperous than it is now because there was a lot more drilling going on,” he said.
He grew up near the home of Charles Murphy, Sr., of the Murphy Oil Corporation, on Mahoney Street, which at that point was a dirt road, he said; the Murphy’s lived on Madison. His mother was Bertie W. Murphy’s sister and Charles’ sister-in-law.
“She had a swimming pool across the street and, generous as they always were and are, she let us swim in it. I thought I was rich until I got old enough to know better,” Brown said, laughing.
El Dorado remained prosperous throughout Brown’s youth. In high school, he worked at a grocery store for $1.98 for three hours of work a week; the money paid for 10-cent double features at the Majestic Theater or a 25-cent tank of gas.
Brown graduated high school at the start of World War II. He joined the Army shortly afterwards and studied as an aircraft radar mechanic. He was stationed in the Southeast Asian theater, first in India and then China.
In 1937, Japan and China began engaging in what would later be known as the Second Sino-Japanese War; the US and the Soviet Union intervened on China’s behalf, with the conflict eventually becoming muddled with others in WWII.
“We were still, at that point in time, engaged in our usual United States attempt to save the world from communism. When we got to China – of course, those poor people had been in the war since 1937, starving, literally starving to death – literally. Of course, they had been under the rule of Chinese warlords, that was the way China was cut up [then], every warlord had his province and the poor peasants were treated like peasants,” Brown said.
“So when Mao Zedong came along – of course, he turned out to be a vicious dictator – but he offered them hope and people would ask me ‘why would the Chinese not go [with him]?’ Our country picked Chiang Kai Shek (recognized as China’s leader until 1971, when the communist People’s Republic of China was formally recognized by the United Nations) to be the overlord of all of China – well, he was another warlord and the people who had lived that way had nothing to lose. Here’s a guy (Zedong) who offered them hope. Hope gets the world going and they weren’t about to say no,” he said.
Brown attended the University of Arkansas after his service, where he studied business. In the late 1940s, between his junior and senior years of college, Brown took a road trip with his friend, Hugh Durrett.
The two decided to head west, on a “great American adventure,” in a busted up car Brown’s father, founder of United Insurance Agency, had purchased after it had been wrecked; it even ran into trouble as Brown made the trip from El Dorado to Keota, Oklahoma, to pick Durrett up.
“My car broke down in Little Rock before I ever got to him in Keota, Oklahoma, and that took almost all the money I had. And of course, gasoline wasn’t that expensive then, but we were living hand to mouth,” Brown said. “And I wouldn’t have called my father and he wouldn’t have called his to ask them for help for nothing – you know, when you’re that age.”
Durrett had a sister in Idaho who they stopped to see first. They planned to work at a wheat harvest as temporary laborers at a farm in South Dakota.
“Of course, on the way up there, we were sleeping in that [car]. We’d just pull off on the side of the road – didn’t have a tent,” Brown said. “This was the old days. We’d just pull over to the side of the road and go to sleep and when the sun got up we took off, headed out in the next direction.”
They stopped in Corvallis, Oregon to see another of Durrett’s sisters. Her husband worked in the logging business, Brown said, and got them hired at a sawmill in town digging a dam to help the native trout go upstream.
“That was not mechanical. That was a two-shovel deal,” he said.
After 10 days at the sawmill, they headed further west to Mitchell, South Dakota, where they spent a week shucking wheat.
“They paid us a whole $1 an hour and just about killed us. We thought we were tough,” Brown said. “We’d get up just before daylight and be out til 9 o'clock at night. If we hadn’t been dead broke we’d have been out of there.”
Brown said that working at the wheat harvest was the hardest work he’d ever done in his life. He and Durrett headed for Yosemite National Park in California after that, driving through South Dakota’s Black Hills on the way.
“Of course, with that kind of rig (car) – and I had ‘Arkansas traveler’ on the back of it – we had more people stop and visit [with us than one can imagine],” Brown said.
The park was not crowded when they arrived at Yosemite shortly after Labor Day. The two took a hiking trip led by an English professor from the University of California.
“This English professor, like most college professors, was a hoot,” Brown said. “So we took off. … He said ‘slow down boys, I’m used to taking women and children up there. We’ll get to the camp and they won’t be ready for us.’ So we had a great trip up there.
"On the way up, they saw a pool off the Merced River and decided to jump in; it wasn’t until after they hit the water that they realized it was melted snow and freezing cold.
“We said ‘well why didn’t you tell us it was so cold?’ And he said ‘well, you didn’t ask,’” Brown said with a laugh.
They made the long trek back to Arkansas after that; almost 1,900 miles in what could almost be considered a homemade car.
“We made that trip out west and had a great trip and when I got back, I drove up into the driveway and I had a quarter of a tank of gasoline and a quarter,” Brown said.
After graduating college, Brown returned to El Dorado to begin working at United Insurance Agency with his father. He and his wife, Joyce, settled down here and he continued working there, including as owner of the company, until he sold the business a few years ago.
Because of his business travels, Brown learned to pilot a plane. He frequently traveled around the country for work; his father was also a pilot.
When he was 65, Brown began making yearly trips to Africa for sightseeing. Last year, he got to take his whole family to visit cities along the coast.
“We just took the whole family down to Cape Town last year. Cape Town, Johannesburg, Victoria Falls … it is very beautiful,” he said.
Looking back, Brown said he has had an adventurous life. From humble beginnings to owning his own business and traveling the world, Brown has seen a lot; but he still remembers his childhood in El Dorado fondly.
“Families always took care of themselves then, so the neighbors would always take care of neighbors. You always had a friend or somebody to take care of you, look after you,” he said. “We didn’t have the material things but we had the things that counted.”
Caitlan Butler can be reached at 870-862-6611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.