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Bloomington-Normal mourns the loss of Willie Brown

Willie Brown
YouTube / 2014 file
Illinois State University
Willie Brown worked at State Farm for 38 years, retiring in 2009 as an executive vice president and one of the Bloomington-based insurance company's most visible faces.

Longtime Twin City community servant Willie Brown died over the weekend, leaving behind decades of friendship.

Those who knew Brown best say of his immeasurable contributions to community life, what they’ll miss most about him is his smile.

Mike Jones is a former State Farm executive who currently serves as the board president of the Western Activity Community Center. Jones recalls meeting Brown at the center back when the two were young boys.

“He was one of the older kids that made us younger kids feel comfortable at the center. He was just always there, welcoming. And I'll always remember the smile that Willie would always have on his face. He was kind to everyone,” Jones said.

The friendship that developed between the two lasted a lifetime. Brown became a mentor to Jones during their years working at State Farm.

“He made executive vice president and I made vice president at State Farm, and he and I would kind of kid each other,” Jones recalled. Because no matter their professional success, Jones and Brown remained two kids linked by their shared experience growing up on Bloomington’s west side.

Brown encouraged Jones to give back to that community, leading to Jones becoming board president of the very center where the two first met. And when the Western Avenue Community Center faced challenging times, Brown was the first person Jones would call.

“And he encouraged me to not let it go, and to keep plugging away,” Jones said. “And we're in a better place today than we were several years ago. So, I'm going to miss just the camaraderie, just the ability to pick up the phone and call him.”

Willie the sounding board

Deanna Frautschi will miss those phone calls, too. Frautschi and Brown were friends for 40 years, meeting through service on various community boards. Their professional lives also often overlapped, while Brown was at State Farm and Frautschi was at Country Financial.

“So, Willie and I actually talked probably at least every other week about things going on,” Frautschi said.

Brown's extensive record of community service earned him numerous awards and Hall of Fame inductions later in life. He was one of Bloomington-Normal's most well-known volunteer voices — and one of its most prominent Black leaders. His legacy of service included chairing a task force in the mid-2000s aimed at closing the education achievement gap for low-income and minority students.

Brown was an invaluable resource, Frautschi said, in his ability to talk through community issues on both a professional and personal level. Often, Frautschi would pick up the phone to bounce things off Brown before making decisions.

And Brown was an amazing catalyst, she added. He was the spark that ignited an interest in others to give back to the community. Frautschi said Brown’s advice carried incredible weight with those around him.

“If they knew if Willie Brown is saying this is a good thing, then it must be a good thing to be involved with,” she said.

But of all the big things Brown represents, it’s the little things Frautschi says she’ll miss the most. “I miss just talking with him. I miss his smile. What a wonderful smile he had.”

Jones also will miss talking to his friend. “When he would call me he would always say, ‘What's happening’,” Jones recalled. “He always wanted to know what was going on. I will always remember that so I'm going to miss my dear friend immensely.”

Kibler-Brady-Ruestman Memorial Home is handling funeral arrangements, which are still being planned.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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