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The Many Lives of Beverly Brown

High-powered career, family, now history of Sloane House

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The slideshow above shows the evolution of a 19th-century industrialist and abolitionist’s family home to a place that, while hosting numerous Boston University functions, remains a family home. Photos by BU Photography. Photos below by Melody Koymerov

Beverly Brown’s home is often inundated with visitors, caterers, and servers. Every inch of the place is buffed and spotless, and repairmen materialize to fix the slightest nick in the woodwork. But there is little pampered about Brown herself, who, after a long day at the office or meetings of various advisory boards, might grab some basil for pesto in one of the gardens at Sloane House, the Gothic revival mansion she shares with her husband, University President Robert A. Brown. In the five years the Browns have called BU home, Bev, as she prefers to be called, has grown enamored of their Brookline neighborhood, from the strolls to their favorite restaurants to her jogging route across the BU Bridge to Memorial Drive and back, from informal visits with friends to catered soirees on the sprawling lawn.

But it’s the house’s 160-year-old past that has seized Brown’s imagination and inspired her to chronicle its history in a new book, being published next month, Sloane House: Preserving the Lawrence Legacy, written with Kevin Carleton, a special assistant to the president, and Christine Wynne, director of presidential functions. Sitting on a fenced half acre on Ivy Street, the house is named for trustee Marshall M. Sloane (SMG), whose gift enabled BU to renovate the property after purchasing it in 1994 as a home for BU presidents. Through reading his diaries, Brown has grown to admire the house’s first occupant, textile merchant and ardent abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence (1814–1886), who built the house in 1850 and 1851.

A down-to-earth scientist and corporate leader with wide-ranging passions, Brown loves the house for its comforts as well as its historical pedigree. The history of Sloane House is a lavishly illustrated account that draws heavily on the diaries of its first resident. The project is just one of the pursuits in a life that has woven family and career in a way that could serve as an example to young women. (The Browns have two sons, Ryan, 28, and Keith, 26.) If Brown, a petite woman who favors fitted earth-tone pants suits, blends in to the campus parade, that’s fine with her. “We’re not rock stars,” she says, with the unfettered directness of a native Texan.

Now director of development—an unpaid position—for BU’s Center for Global Health and Development (CGHD), Brown resigned in May as chief development officer for the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology (CIMIT), a consortium of Boston-area hospitals and engineering schools. With a mission of improving patient care, CIMIT promotes collaboration among scientists, engineers, and physicians to develop technologically sophisticated but minimally invasive approaches to treatment. It was a natural fit for Brown, whose research, development, corporate leadership, and marketing skills earned her positions at DuPont, Baxter International, PerkinElmer, and Woburn-based Linden Bioscience. Her doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Minnesota paved the way for a postdoctoral fellowship in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, an experience she describes as pivotal in her professional growth.

It’s a weighty job history for a woman who also was fully involved in raising a family. “My career is always full of surprises,” says Brown, whose late mother was a medical technologist and completed just one year of college. “My dad didn’t attend college at all.” Growing up in San Antonio, she followed in her mother’s footsteps by training as a technologist. She despised it. “My last year in the lab, I came home in tears and said, ‘I hate this,’” she recalls. “Robert and I were already married then, and this was a huge crisis. I decided, since this was paying our living, to finish the last 12 months.”

After that Brown earned a master’s at the University of Texas, Austin, and began the determined climb that led to a demanding, satisfying career. “I didn’t want to be the person running these assays,” she says of her lab tech days. “I wanted to be the person developing these assays.” Medical school may have seemed a logical path, but back then she was certain of one thing. “I didn’t want to be a doctor,” she says. “I didn’t want the frontline responsibility that physicians have.”

Ever-evolving career path
Brown’s vague interest in applied research combined with the realization that she had a head for business as well as for science. “It was really neat,” she says of her career evolution. “I was involved in acquisitions and mergers for PerkinElmer, learning cutting-edge life science tools and advising the company on acquisitions. I was involved in bringing in a number of product lines. It was kind of like having kids, but you gave them up for adoption, as each new product line was passed on to manufacturing.” Today, as a board member of the networking group Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (GWISE) at BU, Brown emphasizes to young women the importance of understanding their “true talents and capabilities. Things just fell into place or I pushed them a bit,” she says. She gave a well-attended Workshop on Mentoring for GWISE, and she regularly attends the group’s events. “She’s been great in contributing to the GWISE book club discussion,” says Rama Bansil, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of physics, who says she finds Brown’s advice valuable. Brown revamped the GWISE New Faculty program and hosted a networking reception at Sloane House last spring.

Her ever-evolving career path, along with her family, is her greatest source of pride. And her public role as a university president’s wife is not the first to thrust her into the limelight; as a high-profile executive and member of professional boards, she is comfortable in front of large audiences. She finds her current role more of a supporting one. “I can recede when I need to,” says Brown, who professes a “total commitment to BU—absolutely.”

Her loyalty to the University was never a stretch. “It was easy from the beginning to generate it,” she says. MIT, where her husband worked for 25 years as a chemical engineering professor and provost, “was never welcoming to spouses—not that they should be or anything like that,” she says. “But there was always this tension between how much MIT was demanding of my husband’s time, versus time for the family.” But here at BU, their situation is different: “We don’t have the dog, we don’t have the kids, we can both throw ourselves into this. And more importantly, from the first day we came here it’s been an incredibly welcoming and engaging community.” Brown found herself instantly on the seminar circuit. “And I said, why me? What do I have to offer?’ And they said, you’re a good role model, you’ve juggled family and career, and I said okay, if that’s want you want me to talk about.”

One thing that surprised Brown was the interest stirred by her job at CIMIT. “I made a strategic decision to hold on to my day job because I didn’t expect there would be so much encouragement to get involved in BU,” she says. “But I left the job because with the fundraising campaign for BU, I was finding there were more and more demands on my time from the BU side, and I wanted to commit to that.” She also felt she had to concede “a bit of conflict of interest” posed by her development job at CIMIT, where BU was one of several institutions vying for funds. This summer she found what she calls “a very nice docking with the Center for Global Health and Development.”

Brown is quick to point out that when it comes to her husband’s role as the University’s president, there’s a boundary, and she isn’t in the habit of crossing it. “There’s a little bit of tension, which I hope I’m able to dispel, with people when I first meet them,” she says over lunch. “It’s like they wonder, am I going to be a spy?” She describes herself as more of an “embedded reporter.” (Although her demeanor is even and low key, Brown’s unself-conscious laugh punctuates some statements, and this is one of them.) “Both my husband and I throughout our working careers have had an understanding that there are things that need to be compartmentalized, and there are things that, for various reasons, I can’t talk to him about, and things he can’t talk to me about, and we respect that. If there’s something he’s hesitant about telling me, I say, ‘Don’t tell me. I don’t want to hear it.’”

“I’ve been around here five years now and most people know who I am,” she says. “I hope that with time people will see that I just like to take my talents and use them for BU. When I was at CIMIT I had seven weeks off each year—and 75 percent of it went to BU.”

Engaging tour guide
The Browns have always enjoyed family vacations with their sons, joined now by one’s spouse and the other’s fiancé. They’ve embarked on some ambitious journeys, including a jaunt to the Galapagos. Their most recent excursion was an Italian cruise. “We arrange these trips a year in advance, and we pay for them, so the kids come. I’m real good at leaving BU behind, but I’m not sure Robert is good at it,” she says. “We have a house in Brewster, so weekends in the summer we escape down there, and go as much as we can during fall and spring.”

As far as unwinding within the well-appointed expanse of Sloane House, the Browns exercise on a treadmill and elliptical machine in an upstairs great room turned gym. “We exercise up there every day,” Brown says. “The machines get serviced once a year, and the people who maintain them always remark, ‘Wow, you really use this stuff.’” Their private rooms occupy two upstairs floors: a warren of six bedrooms, three studies, and the great room/gym. They often dine at home and do their own food shopping, usually at Johnnie’s Fresh Market around the corner or at Whole Foods in Cambridge. “I love to cook,” she says, adding that her husband enjoys cooking as well, but probably should be discouraged from making a habit of it. Since BU functions are held at the house, the kitchen is industrial-sized, prompting him to joke, according to Brown, “We live in an apartment above a restaurant.”

Everything about the house—from its relatively off-the-beaten-path location (“at Tufts, the president’s yard has students all over it”) to its proximity to Fenway Park—pleases Brown. “We like ethnic restaurants, so we’ll walk to Sol Azteca and Elephant Walk,” she says. “And the commute is fabulous. You cross the Mass Pike, and you’re in the civilian world.” The Browns had been accustomed to trekking into the city from Winchester, where they lived before coming to BU.

Brown is a thorough and engaging guide on a recent tour of Sloane House, versed in the provenance of paintings, antique bureaus, and a pair of Italian marble fireplaces in a dining/living room that accommodates about 80 people with furniture, 200 without. She is especially proud of a rotating exhibition of paintings and other work by BU visual arts students in the front entry, dining room, and loggia. Family photos sit here and there among the upholstered armchairs and the immense, formally draped windows. One of her favorite rooms is the chapel-like library, with its blue stained glass window and vaulted ceiling. An addition to the original house, it was built to commemorate the end of the Civil War and to memorialize Abraham Lincoln. The tour has its whimsical turns, too: visitors are invited to peek into a small bathroom with walls papered to look like bookshelves. “Everyone loves this,” Brown says.

As a showplace where faculty, trustees, and visitors are entertained, Sloane House is impeccably maintained. A piece of tape on a doorframe flags some imperfection. “It’ll be taken care of,” she says. The loggia and the exterior are made of the humble state rock Roxbury puddingstone. Outside, a Japanese garden (“I really should come out here and meditate,” Brown says) spills into a formal British garden. The lawn on the other side of the house, often tented for fall and spring events, is bordered by an outdoor dining area where the transplanted Texans love to barbecue.

These days Brown puts in long days for Global Health and a string of professional boards and speaking engagements. Her CGHD role is bridging the Charles River and Medical Campuses to foster collaboration and development across disciplines. She applies her corporate and R&D know-how to advance global biomedical research, working along with BU’s Office of Technology Development.

She took some time off last spring after leaving CIMIT, but not much. “Then it was time to reengage,” she says. “I like commitments and deadlines, and this new job is so invigorating and rejuvenating.” It’s a constant refrain for Brown: a need to find work you love and throw yourself into it, fueled at least partly by the joy of making a difference.

“What’s interesting is, if Robert would retire I would too,” she says. “But we both enjoy our jobs.” And she sees her career as evolving still. “I’ve changed my career direction subtly every six to seven years,” she says. “There’s always new stuff to learn.”

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @kcornuel.

3 Comments

3 Comments on The Many Lives of Beverly Brown

  • Anonymous on 09.20.2010 at 9:29 am

    "An apartment over a restaurant"

    So, is this really the house that that “Brown himself describes … as ‘an apartment over a restaurant’” in the Boston Globe, June 13, 2010?

  • Vita Paladino on 09.25.2010 at 8:57 am

    twofa

    BU is lucky to have Bev Brown as its first lady. She is an excellent role model for the students on how to manage family, education and career.

    Enjoyed the story and the news that she is now volunteering at BU. In NYC this is called a twofa.

  • Georgia Bradley Zaborowski on 06.17.2013 at 5:19 pm

    Greetings to you from Groton, Massachusetts. I was born into Sloane House, was raised there, married there, and went through my first baby labor pacing around the big living room. It was grand adventure growing up in that house, and I have many wonderful dreams about living there. One of these days, I would love to return to pay a visit to my old house. You have created a wonderland there with all of the work you have done.

    Georgia Bradley Zaborowski, Prof Emeritus

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