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Peggy Brown, 79; worked to improve health care in Roxbury

Dr. Brown’s varied career included lecturing at Northeastern and teaching at Boston College.

Peggy Brown firmly believed all children could learn, and she feared that children of color were often forgotten or overlooked in public schools, which could lead them to drop out, become incarcerated, and lead unfulfilled lives.

Determined to keep children of color in school and out of prison, she launched initiatives to improve health care in Roxbury and also founded the Mandela Crew, the first African-American and Latino team to compete in the Head of the Charles Regatta. She hoped that if she could introduce them to a sport in which they didn’t traditionally participate, they would become more conscientious about their grades and seek better futures.

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“Dr. Brown was like a mother to me,” said DeShawn Riley of Boston, a therapeutic mentor for Massachusetts MENTOR, which provides human service programs to children with emotional and behavior challenges. “She helped me graduate from high school and sometimes stayed up until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning helping me write term papers. She gave me food, a job, and took care of me when my mother was strung out. She was a strong, educated woman who didn’t take any mess and would do anything she could to help people.”

Dr. Brown, who was known for her stylish attire and was well-respected by the children who gravitated to her, died of sepsis Feb. 3 in Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. She was 79 and lived in Boston.

In 1994, she spoke to the Globe about what inspired her to found the Mandela Crew. Three years earlier, she had taken a van full of children from the Mandela apartments in Roxbury to see the Head of the Charles Regatta. As they watched the crews in their rowing shells, the children told her, “We can do that,” and Dr. Brown responded, “Why don’t you?”

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Equally passionate about helping people of color improve their health, she started the Mandela Town Hall Health Spot in Roxbury at around the same time.

“The Health Spot offered weekly blood pressure and blood sugar screenings, and when Dr. Brown felt there was a particular health issue that needed attention she’d invite a dentist, an optometrist, or any other health care provider who addressed the health disparities she observed in the Mandela community,” said Ruth Hines of Boston, a former Health Spot nurse. “Dr. Brown was genuinely concerned about the early deaths of African-Americans due to the lack of early screening and education.”

Peggy Olivia Jones was born on March 5, 1934, in Washington, D.C., and grew up in New York City. After graduating from the High School of Music & Art in New York, she went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and received a bachelor’s degree in 1956 in English literature, drama, and education.

She later graduated from City College of New York with a master’s in English literature and education, and from Columbia Teachers College in New York with a doctorate in education, with a concentration in early childhood.

Several years before receiving a doctorate, while teaching junior high school English in the South Bronx, she married William H. Brown. They had two children and their marriage ended in divorce.

Dr. Brown’s multifaceted career included lecturing at Northeastern University and teaching as an adjunct professor at Boston College, her family said, as well as serving as a public relations consultant to the Organization of Americans States, the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the City Council in Washington, D.C.

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In the process, family and friends said, her life became a beacon for others.

“Coming out of the South Bronx, my mother saw the absolutely devastating trajectory for those around there who had limited access to good educational opportunities, as well as the pervasive sense of hopelessness for those with few examples of positive role models,” said her son, William Jr. of Los Angeles, a cupcake bakery owner who is known as Chip. “My Mom definitely believed if she could reach children and expose them early enough to the possibilities of a successful life through education and new experiences, their innate brilliance could be actualized.”

Chip and his sister, Leslie of Montclair, N.J., said their mother was tireless when it came to helping others.

“Mom was an advocate for people and youth she felt were at risk,” said Leslie, a management consultant and documentary filmmaker. “She made sure failure was not an option for them and believed teaching was not just about using a textbook but also included world events, newspapers, movies, and real life. She used creativity in her curriculum to keep students engaged in the learning process.”

Along with her former husband, Dr. Brown stressed the importance of education to their children, who attended private schools and boarding school.

Her children said the gratitude for her work in the community was evident.

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“People appreciated her kindness and recognized her value and contribution to the community,” Leslie said. “This was expressed during her funeral through the outpouring of love for her and the countless stories and testimonials about how she helped them survive and succeed when others didn’t expect them to.”

Riley said Dr. Brown taught him “how to be a man and helped me realize how important I am to my community and my family, and how important it is to give back and pay it forward. That’s why I do the job I do. I became a mentor to help young men become the type of man Dr. Brown has made me. Because of Dr. Brown, I’m a good father and a good mentor for the young men in my community. If it wasn’t for her, I definitely wouldn’t be alive today.”

Dr. Brown, Hines said, often smiled with “satisfaction at the end of every Saturday, knowing that someone’s life had changed for the better after visiting the Health Spot.”

Dr. Brown’s children said she was always a champion for young people.

“She artfully used her God-given talents, her shocking persistence, and ferocious tenacity to aid those who were often beautiful hidden gems,” Chip said.

Leslie added that her mother “went the distance in helping youth and their families. She was about action, and she was passionate about making a difference.”


Laurie D. Willis can be reached at lauriedwillis@hotmail.com.