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State Farm donates $250K to Western Avenue Community Center to honor Willie Brown's legacy

Jordan Mead
State Farm donated $250,000 to the Western Avenue Community Center to honor the late executive Willie Brown on Wednesday, April 6, 2022.

A strong dedication to community service and leadership are characteristics Willie Brown displayed throughout his life in Bloomington-Normal, including work with the Western Avenue Community Center, NAACP, the Urban League and other groups.

Brown, a longtime State Farm executive, passed away March 5 at the age of 74. To honor his commitment to the Bloomington-Normal community and to continue Brown’s legacy, State Farm on Wednesday donated $250,000 to the Western Avenue Community Center (WACC) in Bloomington.

“This was about honoring Willie Brown who was iconic in both organizations as a leader, as a person, (and) as a humanitarian,” said Rasheed Merritt, State Farm’s assistant vice president over corporate responsibility and public affairs.

Brown began his career with Bloomington-based State Farm in 1971 in data processing, and retired in 2009 as executive vice president.

Since his death, Brown has been remembered by former coworkers, peers, friends and family for the impact he made in their lives.

Jordan Mead
Rasheed Merritt is State Farm’s vice president over corporate responsibility and public affairs. Merritt knew the late State Farm executive vice president Willie Brown for nine years, and he said Brown always encouraged him to serve others and to give back to the local community.

Merritt said Brown always was focused on ways he could help others, and was persistent in encouraging his peers to likewise be devoted to how they could best serve their communities.

“It’s just a way to honor him for what he did. When you can honor someone that is 100% authentic, it just feels good. He is one of my heroes. One of my State Farm heroes,” Merritt said.

State Farm CEO Michael Tipsord said the gift will expand the Brown’s impact throughout the next generation.

“When I think about what’s really important, and really this personalizes it for me, it’s the impact that a person has on other people. At the end of the day, that’s what really matters. I know no one in this community who’s had a bigger impact than Willie Brown,” Tipsord said.

Retired State Farm Vice President Michael Jones, who serves on the WACC board, said the donation will allow the center to expand its youth program. Short-term goals include creating a summer program for middle school children called Discovering Blo-No. The program will allow roughly 45 to 50 middle school aged children to explore Bloomington-Normal.

“We are going to work hard to find a signature program to honor him and his name that will be focused around some of the key pillars that Willie embodied: leadership, academic achievement and good citizenship,” Jones said. “Those are things that he believed in and tried to instill in everyone he worked with or met with. He’s smiling right now knowing that we are receiving this gift.”

Jones said it is important for children to be given opportunities to venture beyond their neighborhoods over the summer and to be exposed to learning opportunities within the community.

Long-term goals with the gift include creating a signature event to honor Brown and his family, though details are still being discussed by State Farm and the Brown family.

Jones said he and Brown had a friendship going back nearly 60 years, and the loss to the community and to him personally has been difficult to process. Jones said this donation will allow Brown’s impact to continually reach local children and families.

Jordan Mead
From left, Rasheed Brown, Michael Jones and Michael Tipsord talk about the impact the late State Farm executive vice president Willie Brown left in Bloomington-Normal. To honor Brown's life, State Farm donated $250,000 to the Western Avenue Community Center on Wednesday.

“Willie Brown was special. I think to everyone in this room, if you didn’t know him, you missed out on something,” Jones said.

Jones continued, “A good citizen to him meant that you grew in a community, and you helped and supported the community that you grew up in. We’re going to figure out some kind of way to develop a program that embodies all of those pillars that I know Willie will stand behind.”

As Brown’s legacy lives on, Jones hopes people understand and take upon themselves the commitment to academics, to being a good citizen and to being a leader that Brown exemplified.

“If they recognize or see someone that needs a helping hand, they will reach back and bring that person forward. To me, that’s embodiment of a good citizen,” Jones said.

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Jordan Mead is a reporting intern at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021.
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