Jack Brown, the man for whom the ubiquitous dry cleaning operation was named and who for decades kept Austinites appropriately creased while also warming the poor with winter coats, died Friday after months of declining health, according to family members.
He was 89.
A University of Texas graduate, Brown lived most of his life in Austin, raising with his wife a large family that to this day gets together regularly for meals after Sunday Mass, winter getaways and, yes, work. Six of Brown’s eight children and three of his grandchildren are in the family business, turning Jack Brown Cleaners into one of the largest family-owned dry cleaners in the country, with more than 40 area locations.
“He was thankful for how supportive Central Texas has been,” said his son Paul Brown, the company’s president.
The business, in one form or another, has been in existence for more than 100 years, including the past 82 in Austin.
Jack Brown’s father, Paul, cleaned Midland’s clothes in 1907 after his father gave him a steam laundry invention for his wedding, according to the cleaners’ website. Capitalizing on the oil boom in the late 1920s, Paul Brown moved the operation to Eastland and opened another in Cisco. When the boom ended in the early 1930s, he took the laundry back to Midland, where it stayed until he moved to Austin and opened Paul Brown’s San Jacinto Laundry in 1935.
Jack Brown took over in 1951, leaving his job as a civil engineer with the Texas Highway Department. Ten years later he purchased One-Hour Martinizing Cleaners while still doing business at San Jacinto Laundry.
Brown remained involved after his retirement 20-plus years ago, popping into the main office on Northland Drive to mentor his children and scout locations for expansion.
“He was very active even in his last few days,” Paul Brown said.
Jack Brown, the son said, took pride in philanthropy, spearheading construction of two Austin Catholic churches, organizing an initiative to plant trees and serving on an array of boards, including St. David’s HealthCare for 36 years.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of his warmth is felt every winter by children in the Austin area. In the mid-1980s, dry cleaning friends from Madison, Wis., told Brown about a program they put together to bring winter coats to underprivileged kids. He liked the idea so much that he brought it to Austin and created Coats for Kids, which for the past 31 years has collected, cleaned and distributed coats for some 850,000 children.
When he wasn’t working, Brown made time for leisure, inviting friends to golf and seeing which of them could find more lost balls by the end of the round. Brown, who enjoyed the camaraderie the game brought perhaps more than the game itself, was known for asking others as he pulled out the scorecard, “What do you want?”
Family members say he put them before anything else. The Browns remain especially close and for many years gathered every Thursday night and on Sunday afternoons at Luby’s. Now it’s just Sundays. They get away for Christmas, be it cruises, skiing in Colorado or — with 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren to consider — Disney World. They’re staying home this year; they were leery about scheduling anything because of Brown’s health, which had worsened since the summer.
Brown’s wife of 67 years, Betty, whom he met at UT, died last December. Their eight children — six sons, two daughters — were born over a span of 20 years. A son, Jeff, died six years ago. Another son, Michael, works in venture capital in Boston and is the only Brown who did not join the family business. Combined with operations in San Antonio under different names, the family is involved in 62 dry cleaning companies.