The way John and Rosemary Brown decided to attend Auburn almost seems whimsical, although it really wasn’t. They were both students at Freed-Hardeman University (at that time a junior college) in Henderson, Tennessee – a small, private institution where enrollment even now is just under 2,000.
John and Rosemary both applied to Auburn sight unseen. One of their good friends, Ken Fike from Jasper, Alabama, was an unabashed Auburn fan, and John and Rosemary drove down to the Plains with him (he had a car!) and they ended up as students at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute. The two, who first met in math class at Freed-Hardeman, took their studies seriously, and did well.
John, who initially considered civil engineering, noted that he had grown up on a farm, where “we worked seven days a week and the job was never done. I was determined not to be a farmer, and that was the only kind of engineering I knew about since I had worked one summer on a road construction crew.”
After taking chemistry at Freed-Hardeman, he decided on chemical engineering as a major. At Auburn, John found the chemical engineering curriculum tough and demanding. He recalls that there were about 15 to 20 students in his class, joking that there had been many more than that, “until organic chemistry drove them out.”
When John and Rosemary graduated from Auburn in 1957, they both felt ready to face the world, John as a chemical engineer and Rosemary as a chemist. Later, when they lived in New Jersey, Rosemary went to Rutgers University for a master’s in math education and then began her teaching career.
John went on to become CEO and chairman of the board of Stryker Corporation, a leading medical device company with annual revenue exceeding $9 billion.
“People talk about the Auburn spirit,” John observes. “It’s very real. It’s profound. And that’s why people talk about it. The Auburn family is smart, dedicated, hard-working, and they care about each other, and they care about the world. Rosemary and I feel that we took that with us when we graduated from Auburn.”
Adds Rosemary, “It’s not something that’s taught, but it’s a sense that you feel. I think that you see it everywhere, even in the way our fans act at football games. I think that the Auburn family is different. It’s friendlier.”
Another aspect John and Rosemary see in the Auburn spirit is the way in which Auburn alumni give of their money, their time and their service.
“Auburn educated us and prepared us for life. That drives us.”
Of their $57 million gift, $30 million is earmarked for the College of Engineering and the remaining balance to the university, with most of that portion for a performing arts center.
“We were trying to think of something that could make an impact on both the students and the faculty of the College of Engineering. As we spoke with Dean Chris Roberts and a team of Auburn development officers – Ed Lewis, Jane Parker and Rob Wellbaum – we realized that an engineering student achievement center would be an appropriate addition to the university.
“It is our hope that the new student center will develop into something that is useful for all segments of the engineering community. Our real desire is that it will have a broad and encompassing benefit for all.”
Will it be nice . . . to have your name on a building?
“Certainly,” Rosemary says. “I think that in one sense it speaks to our commitment . . . my maiden name is Kopel, so I think it’s great that the building will be known as the Brown-Kopel Student Achievement Center. The Miller Auditorium at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo was named after an acquaintance of ours, and whenever I attend an event there I think of him – Jim Miller. It’s a personal thing for me.
“At the same time, I don’t think that the vast majority of people who go to events there make that personal connection and that’s fine, there is no reason for them to do so. I feel the same way here, that while we feel so grateful to have played a small part in Auburn’s growth, the real value is that we, in a sense, have planted a tree.
“One of our favorite quotes is ‘The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.’ That is a guiding principle for us, and one that we hope to share with others in the Auburn family.”
The Browns at Work and in Service
John was named chairman emeritus of Stryker Corporation in 2010, having served as president of the medical device company from 1977-2003; chief executive officer from 1977-2004, and director from 1977-2009. He served as chairman of the board of Stryker from 1981-2009.
Following his graduation from Auburn in 1957, John took his first engineering job with Ormet, a joint venture with Olin Mathieson and Revere Copper and Brass. In 1961, he moved to rocket propellant maker Thiokol, and then entered the pharmaceutical industry with Squibb, where he became assistant to the president. His work there culminated in the presidency of Edward Weck & Company, a struggling medical device manufacturer purchased by Squibb.
His business savvy and perspective on design and production led him to double Weck’s sales, and triple its profits in just five years. This brought him to the attention of Stryker, a family-owned firm making cast saws and hospital beds in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He grew the company from $17 million in sales in 1976 to the $9 billion in sales it has enjoyed in recent years, over the course of a career that lasted more than three decades.
Rosemary retired after serving as a mathematics teacher for almost 30 years. She has served on many community boards, including Freed-Hardeman University and Kalamazoo College, the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts and currently the Atlanta Opera.
John serves on the boards of St. Jude Medical, the American Business Conference and the Auburn University Foundation. He is a 2003 inductee in the State of Alabama Engineering Hall of Fame, a recipient of the Auburn Alumni Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a recipient of an honorary law degree from both Freed-Hardeman University and Kalamazoo College, the inaugural recipient of the AdvaMed Lifetime Achievement Award and the inaugural inductee into Auburn University’s Entrepreneur Hall of Fame.
The Browns in Philanthropy
John and Rosemary’s $57 million gift to Auburn, the largest in the institution’s history, is the culmination of a long history of giving to the university. In addition to the College of Engineering, they have donated to the College of Sciences and Mathematics and the College of Veterinary Medicine, as well as other units within the university. Within the College of Engineering they support a number of scholarship students in chemical engineering, as well as providing the Brown Professorship that is held by Allan David on the chemical engineering faculty. They are also well known as contributors to the arts community, and to civic organizations.