It’s almost time for Pete Brown’s sing-a-long in Rose Schnitzer Manor’s Marcy’s Bar and the residents are already in their chairs waiting for the show to begin.
Even wearing a mask, Pete draws a crowd every time with his quiet, folksy manner and simple, singable song choices. Residents are encouraged to sing along to classics like Four Leaf Clover or Being a Pirate or This Land is Your Land.
“The residents love this activity,” said Fabiana Dal Cero, Life Enrichment activity manager. Pete, almost 81, grew up in Denver, Colorado, and was encouraged by his high school teacher to pursue mathematics, at which he was determined to succeed. But he “didn’t do a lot of singing.”
He attended Dartmouth in New Hampshire, earning a bachelor of arts in math, and singing informally with friends while playing the ukulele. It was the early 1960’s and Dartmouth was all male and there were “all kinds of people who liked to play and sing.” Said Pete: “I was completely self-taught; music was just a hobby.”
Pete then attended a one-year graduate program at Harvard and received his master of arts in teaching. After graduate school, he taught high school math and coached gymnastics at an Evanston high school (to be closer to future wife, Janet Rabenstein, who was a year behind him in school and from Illinois), and then the couple returned to Dartmouth together where they had originally met on a blind date, and Pete worked in the admissions office. They had two sons.
“I got more into music when we returned to Dartmouth and spent a lot of time playing hootenannies,” said Pete. “I carried a little book of songs in which I kept adding new ones.”
After seven years, Pete and Jan moved to Walla Walla where Pete was the associate dean of admissions and coached diving. The family stayed in Walla Walla for nine years and added another son and an adopted daughter from Korea.
“I loved the small college feel and the location,” said Pete. “We were avid skiers, and we played bridge. But I have to say that I’m most proud of raising four children.”
The Brown family spent nine years in Walla Walla and then moved to Lake Oswego, where Pete was director of admissions for Lewis & Clark College for seven years.
Moving to Moscow, Idaho, Pete was director of admissions and financial aid at the University of Idaho for several years until budget cuts ended the job.
At that point, he turned his childhood hobby of baseball card collecting into a business, buying a sports card store that he named Browns Cooperstown. After 10 years in Idaho, Pete moved the store to Seattle and was there for 25 years.
I’m most proud of raising four children.
When Jan began struggling with Parkinson’s, the pair moved to a Ballard senior living facility before investigating homes in Portland with more care.
“I had been hiring caregivers to come in 24 hours a day to help me care for my wife, but I realized that was not going to work in the long erm,” said Pete. “One of the reasons we came here was for Jan to get overnight nursing care. It was also important to me to be able to find a home where I could live with my wife.”
The older Brown sons lived in Portland and sent Pete brochures. Jan moved into the Tonkin household and Pete lived in an apartment in Rose Schnitzer Manor. Pete ate all his meals with Jan and volunteered to lead sing-a-longs at the Harold Schnitzer Center for Living while Jan lived there. She died in December 2019.
“She was extremely bright and so energetic,” remembers Pete. And then the pandemic hit and music became an important outlet and connector. “I would open my apartment door and put on my face mask and go sing in the hallways with people sitting in the hallways to listen with their masks on,” said Pete. “Once we were on lockdown, Cathy [Zheutlin, spiritual life director] helped me record the songs so we could put them on the internal television channel.”
Now, Pete leads sing-a-longs in Marcy’s Bar one day a week. He still wears a mask; a small microphone is tied around his neck. And the residents come to listen and to follow along with their printed song sheets.
I think Cedar Sinai Park has been a good match for me.
In addition to Pete’s sons in Oregon, another son resides in Florida, and Pete’s daughter is in Seattle. Pete has six grandchildren and reads to four of them over Zoom one night a week at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time; right now, they’re tackling Pippi Longstocking. One of Pete’s Portland grandsons, Asa, delivered meals at Cedar Sinai Park in the summer of 2020.
“I’m happy here for the time being,” said Pete. “I thought the care my wife received was very good; it served our purpose.
“I think Cedar Sinai Park has been a good match for me.”