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History teacher brought wars to life for students

Roberts N. Brown, 76, a World War II veteran, took the battles off the movie screen and into the classroom.

When he first left his native Clearwater at age 18 to attend college in Texas, Roberts N. Brown had big plans to become an engineer and spend his life building important things. But a war changed all that.

The highly respected retired educator known best for his ability to show his students that war was not a John Wayne movie, died Saturday at Tierra Pines Nursing Home, Clearwater, at age 76.

The son of Queen Roberts and D. Newton Brown, he was born in Clearwater and attended local schools before going to Texas A&M University to pursue an engineering degree. He was a member of the freshman class that was drafted to form a special infantry unit in preparation for the invasion of Normandy.

As he lost his youth with his fellow classmates in the battlefields of France and they marched their way through Europe to the Battle of the Bulge, his outlook and priorities changed. He decided that being a teacher and building great people was far more important than building great things. When he returned to college, he changed his major to education.

Mr. Brown became not just a teacher but "one of best American history teachers ever to be," according to fellow history teacher Bob O'Donnell, who "learned much from Mr. Brown, about what war was really about."

Mr. Brown once worked with O'Donnell of East Lake High School and Terry Quessenberry of Countryside High School to put together a special comprehensive unit to teach about the Vietnam War.

"World War II and even Vietnam is ancient history to students now," O'Donnell said. "Born after 1970, they haven't grown up with daily body counts as dinnertime companions. Their image is that of a bunch of John Waynes and Rambos. But Mr. Brown could put it in focus. He helped students to see war through the eyes of a foot soldier, to feel the loss at Pearl Harbor, to experience the gore of the Holocaust."

Mr. Brown, a resident for several years of Belleair, taught at Clearwater High School from 1948-1960 and was also a track and field coach. He then moved to North Carolina and taught at Hendersonville High School from 1960-1967.

From 1968-1975, while working on his doctorate, Mr. Brown was a member of University of North Carolina sports staff as assistant track coach and a wide receivers coach. He was nominated to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and was acknowledged as the "father of modern track in western North Carolina," according to his only survivor, his son Michael Newton Brown of St. Petersburg. "My father is known as the person who introduced track and field events into western North Carolina schools."

Mr. Brown returned to the Tampa Bay area in 1976 and took a position as an advanced-placement history teacher at Dunedin High School. It was at this time that he collaborated with O'Donnell and Quessenberry on the special unit about war and particularly the Vietnam War.

Mr. Brown also wrote three cook books, the profits from which were donated to education. His interest in cooking started when he was a boy. As a hurricane threatened, he pestered his parents for something to do while the storm raged. His mother solved his problem by having him make cupcakes on their gas stove. His interest in cooking also took a history slant. He researched the historical derivations of many foods and tied cooking into his history lessons.

When Mr. Brown retired in 1986 from Dunedin High School, he moved to Gainesville before returning to Clearwater in 1997.

Memorial services will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at Sylvan Abbey Memorial Park, with ashes scattered at sea at a later time.

The family has asked for contributions to be made in his name to The World War II Memorial, in care of the American Battle Monuments Commission, P.O. Box 96766, Washington, D.C., 20090-67866. Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home, Clearwater, is in charge of arrangements.