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Brian McEwen, whose wit and charm aided child-abuse prevention, dead at 65

As executive director of Champions for Children, Brian McEwen used his winning personality to enlist an army of supporters in the effort to prevent child abuse. [Champions for Children]
As executive director of Champions for Children, Brian McEwen used his winning personality to enlist an army of supporters in the effort to prevent child abuse. [Champions for Children]
Published Apr. 7, 2018

TAMPA — Friends say Brian McEwen used his winning personality to enlist an army of supporters in the effort to prevent child abuse.

"He was so smart and quick-witted and articulate,'' said Liz Kennedy, community liaison with Champions for Children, formerly called the Child Abuse Council. "He was a wonderful speaker. He wrote extremely well ... He networked with grace and wisdom.''

Mr. McEwen, who was the organization's executive director, died of brain cancer March 25 at 65.

He ran an agency of about 130 full and part-time employees, "and everybody loved him,'' Kennedy said. "It's been a really tough loss.''

Mr. McEwen helped hone the non-profit's focus on child abuse prevention through a series of education programs targeting parents, not only those referred by social workers but also any parent who wanted to attend.

One program teaches parents how to appropriately talk to and play with their children. Another gets fathers to bond with their babies by teaching them how to bathe, dress and comfort them. Another uses puppets in elementary schools to talk to children about sexual abuse, child abuse and bullying. Letters that children write to the puppets can sometimes identify children being abused.

The aim of all the programs is to teach parents how to treat children positively, "and in so doing prevent child abuse,'' said Anne Gormly, who was chairwoman of the board of Champions for Children when Mr. McEwen became executive director.

''Brian was a practical dreamer,'' Gormly said. "He was somebody who was not afraid to envision, 'What would it be like if ...' and then engage everybody with his enthusiasm to do just that.''

Personable and witty and a dapper dresser in a bow tie, "he'd look you in the eye and give you that twinkle,'' she said.

A lifelong resident of Tampa, Mr. McEwen was son of the late James "Red" McEwen, a prominent Tampa lawyer, and Louise Roberts McEwen.

Mr. McEwen and his brother, David McEwen — a year apart in age — were best friends growing up in what was then the sparsely developed West Shore area, David McEwen recalls.

"We had lots of adventures: riding bikes, climbing trees, throwing rocks and having a good time," David McEwen said.

In Jesuit High School, they acted in plays.

"He was the far better actor. He'd be Julius Caesar; I'd be further down the playbill.''

He always had great empathy for others, his brother said.

"He didn't think people ought to be left out.''

Jane Murphy, executive director of the Healthy Start Coalition, had known Mr. McEwen for 20 years.

"He had a unique way of turning a phrase. He was always the smartest guy in the room.''

She said she rarely sat next to him in meetings because he would make her laugh.

"Brian had a unique ability to do color commentary,'' she said. "It was never cruel. He just had a huge heart.''

Mr. McEwen graduated from Jesuit, Vanderbilt University and the University of South Florida, where he received his Ph.D. in applied anthropology.

He started his career counseling families with disturbed children and juveniles. He worked during the 1990s at Northside Mental Health Center.

He received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Child Advocacy from the Early Childhood Council of Hillsborough County in 2016. Just five days before his death he was named a Tampa Bay Lightning Community Hero, which comes with a $50,000 award for the charity of his choice from the Lightning Foundation.

He donated it to Champions for Children.

Kennedy, who accepted the award for Mr. McEwen, recalled his comment when she interviewed him for her acceptance speech.

"He said, 'I've always been interested in families. Families were what it was all about for me.'''

In a guest column for the Tampa Bay Times in 2015, Mr. McEwen wrote:

"When it comes to child development, children won't wait. They can't. There are no "do-overs" for these early years. The child is learning either way — either in a happy, interactive manner, or in an anxious, fearful or detached one. Their alternatives are utilized opportunities, missed opportunities or bad opportunities.

"Let's make sure every child gets the best opportunities. In the long run, it not only creates a happier, healthier child, but also a stronger and more productive community. We all have a stake in this.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.