Life Remembered: Former sheriff, Rantoul mayor driven to serve

RANTOUL — After stepping down as sheriff of Champaign County in 1990, Joe Brown quickly got bored and went back to work.

Mr. Brown kept on working until shortly before his death Monday. In his role of public guardian for Champaign County, he recently attended a hearing at the county courthouse carrying an oxygen tank and getting around in a wheelchair pushed by his wife.

"There was a real drive in Joe to serve the community," said Rantoul Mayor Neal Williams, who was a member of the village board when Brown was the mayor of Rantoul and then defeated Brown in a 2001 race for the mayor's office.

Mr. Brown, 74, died Monday morning at Provena Covenant Hospital in Urbana.

Visitation will be from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Lux Memorial Chapel in Rantoul.

A funeral Mass will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at St. Malachy Catholic Church. Burial will be at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Rantoul.

Mr. Brown was best known for his 31-year career in law enforcement, including his 12 years as the county sheriff from 1978 to 1990. But Brown remained just as active after his retirement from law enforcement, serving on the village board in Rantoul and then as mayor. After leaving the mayor's office and despite failing health, Mr. Brown took over as the appointed public guardian, a position requiring him to accept court appointments to make decisions for individuals disabled by physical or mental problems.

Most recently, Mr. Brown was in the news after he was appointed to serve as the guardian for William "Bill" Walton, a homeless man who had been living in downtown Urbana for years.

Mr. Brown spent much of his law enforcement career in investigations, an area where he developed considerable expertise. He was the chief of investigations in the sheriff's office from 1965 to 1976, when he became chief deputy under former Sheriff Everett Hedrick.

"Joe was an excellent investigator," recalled retired sheriff's investigator Kent Fletcher.

As sheriff, Fletcher recalled, Mr. Brown oversaw investigations handled by his subordinates but did not get too deeply involved.

"He let you do your job," said Fletcher.

Mr. Brown also was something of an iconoclast when it came to performing his job. For most of his 31 years in police work, he declined to carry a gun.

"It's a good way to get yourself in trouble," he once said, commenting that he thought younger officers were sometimes too quick to draw a weapon.

Mr. Brown said he found that he didn't need a weapon because most suspects he dealt with assumed he had one.

He also took pride in eliciting confessions from suspects, taking a low-key, empathetic approach with those who were in trouble.

"I'd sit there and cry right with them," Mr. Brown once said.

Mr. Brown's life is a testimonial to public service.

He was born on a farm south of Penfield to a family he described as without financial means but very close. He graduated from Rantoul High School in 1955 and served in the U.S. Army from 1960 to 1962.

Brown started his law enforcement career in 1959 with the Rantoul Police Department. His tenure there was interrupted by his military service. But he returned to the Rantoul department after leaving the military and remained there until 1964, when he joined the sheriff's office.

Brown once said his most enjoyable experience in law enforcement was his long tenure in investigations, commenting that "there's a certain amount of satisfaction when you outsmart that defendant."

When he succeeded Hendrick, a longtime incumbent, in 1978, Mr. Brown found that he'd given up a law enforcement job to take on the duties of a manager. In that context, he presided over the construction of a new jail in downtown Urbana that, because the county board skimped on costs, was overcrowded the day it was opened in 1980.

Over the years, Brown wrestled intermittently with jail crowding issues. Once, in a fit of pique, he picked a fight with county judges by ordering sheriff's employees to put cots in the courthouse and decreed that excess inmates could sleep there over the weekend.

Angry judges ordered Brown to desist, and there was speculation they might order Brown's arrest by the county coroner, the official named by state law as having the authority to arrest a sheriff. But things simmered down after Brown ordered the cots removed.

"His theory was that (the judges) weren't helping him enough in the overcrowding of the jail," said former sheriff's Lt. Roger Corray, who served under Brown.

It was during his tenure as sheriff that Mr. Brown suffered the first of a series of health problems. Warned by his physician that he needed to stop smoking and take better care of himself, Mr. Brown pursued his new health regimen in his own unique style.

He'd smoke half of a cigarette before stubbing it out. A few minutes later, he'd light another cigarette and do the same thing all over again.

After leaving the sheriff's office at age 54, Brown moved into a new line of work. He sold telephone systems to county sheriff's offices and involved himself in community and municipal affairs.

He was elected to the Rantoul Village Board in 1991, winning a council seat on a blind drawing after he and his opponent Johnny Abram each received 796 votes. Six years later, Brown was elected mayor.

"There was a lot of work to be done," recalled Mayor Williams.

Williams noted that Rantoul was coping with the aftermath of the closing of the Chanute Air Force Base and trying to integrate a new village administrator into municipal operations.

"That was a very tough time," Mayor Williams recalled. "He served the community of Rantoul and Champaign County for a number of years, and he served them well."

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skiparoo wrote on December 06, 2011 at 10:12 am

loved it when he put those cots in the crooked-courthouse.  great and fun guy.