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THE UNSTOPPABLE SALLY BROWN
By Joe Ward

January 2007




Ashton C. Shallenberger was a Nebraska banker, stockman and politician who believed in a vigorous outdoor life. A passionate conservationist, he would take his family on hikes and picnics, even climbing mountains. Shallenberger also was a fairly successful politician, credited with a gift of oratory that helped him win as a Democrat in a mostly Republican state.

He served one term as Nebraska governor — 1909 to 1911 — and eight (sprinkled between 1901 and 1935) as U.S. Congressman. He lost a second bid for the governor’s chair for a reason that ultimately proved ironic. As governor he was pressured by early prohibitionists to sign a “daylight saloon bill” that closed bars except in daylight hours. Saloon and brewery interests pressured him against signing. He weighed his options long enough that a former governor found it necessary to come to his office and plead so vigorously on the bill’s behalf that he actually had heart failure and died. Shallenberger ultimately signed the bill, and historians say that’s why he subsequently lost his party’s nomination for governor.

But it’s hard to say who had the last laugh. Shallenberger’s son, Gen. M.C. Shallenberger, gave him a granddaughter who has since made a good living in the whiskey business for 71 years. Score one for the liquor interests. But the granddaughter — Louisville’s Sara “Sally” Shallenberger Brown — also has eked out enough surplus to spend millions of dollars helping various causes, conservation being very prominent among them. Perhaps old Shallenberger has come out on top after all.

Louisville certainly has, and Kentucky and the country. Brown’s money and her wide-ranging interests and contacts have given a global reach to her service and philanthropy. She is the widow of W.L. Lyons Brown Sr., the late president and chairman of Brown-Forman Corp., a 136-year-old Louisville business that is the largest wine and spirits company in America.

Locust Grove, the last home of Louisville founder George Rogers Clark, was a much-altered house in the middle of a weed patch when Sally Brown became interested in it. She recalls getting some people she knew together on the porch at Ashbourne, her landmark home on River Road, and asking each to write on a sheet of paper the amount he or she was willing to give to the Locust Grove cause. “We raised $250,000 on my porch,” she says. The money launched an effort that has brought Locust Grove back to its rightful place in Louisville and Kentucky history, as a National Historic Landmark and a popular museum.

Her exhilaration at seeing the soaring, eons-old limestone cliffs of the Kentucky River Palisades south of Wilmore, Ky., set in motion a conservation program that has fended off commercial encroachment in that scenic corridor. “I was so overwhelmed when I first saw it,” Brown says. “I thought how terrible it would be if somebody put a Holiday Inn or a Marriott there. I thought we should have a setback so that they couldn’t build on the rim.” Her family and foundation bought land to form the 632-acre Sally Brown Nature Preserve on the south side of the Kentucky in Garrard County. “It’s a place where people can have picnics,” she says. “It’s nice for everybody to be able to enjoy the river, and to see the herons and the Kentucky plants that
grow there.”

She pushed hard and long for the historic expansion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and was present when President Jimmy Carter signed the bill that made the expansion official. She served as a delegate to United Nations conferences on world population in Romania in 1974 and in Mexico in 1984, and worked during that same period with Prince Heinrich Reuss of Austria on the International Council for Game and Wildlife Conservation. The latter is an organization that seeks to persuade the world’s great landowners that good stewardship is necessary to preserve the habitat for game and other wildlife. “I went to Vienna a lot and stayed with Prince Reuss,” Brown says, and speaks of traveling with the group to such countries as Iran and Hungary, of hard work and of being “received in a marvelous way” wherever they went.

   
Sally Brown (second from left, on horse) with husband W.L. Lyons Brown and their four children in a circa 1960 photo taken at Ashbourne.

Brown is 95 now, and the list of her local, state, national and international boards, projects and awards is almost dumbfounding. “Her stamina,” says Humana co-founder David Jones, a longtime friend and collaborator in worthy causes, “is still amazing.” Jones says he counts knowing Sally Brown as “one of the great pleasures” of his life. “She not only has money; she has an active brain,” he says. One of their joint efforts is service on the board of a teaching-excellence fund at Transylvania University in Lexington, and Jones says they often make the trip down together, an hour and a half each way. It’s time Jones says he enjoys very much. “The thing about her, she’s interesting,” he says.

Born in Valdez, Alaska, in 1911, Brown grew up in a military family that moved around the country and around Europe, and was touched by history everywhere it went. Her father, Martin C. Shallenberger, was an aide-de-camp to Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing during Pershing’s skirmishes with Pancho Villa along the Mexican border before World War I. One of Shallenberger’s fellow lieutenants was George S. Patton, who prevailed on him to help wangle an assignment for Patton with the border expedition, “where the action was.” Brown has a family story about Patton being asked how soon he could come. His reply: “I have my saddlebags packed.”

Her father went to France with Pershing for World War I, and Brown remembers attending, as a seven-year-old,  a convocation of officers’ wives in New York when the war ended. “Everybody was crying. I didn’t know why,” she recalls. Her memory for detail about those days is one of the things Jones talks about. She and her mother and brother sailed for France on a returning troop carrier after the war, and were to meet her father ashore. But when the launch came out to meet the ship, she says, there was a tall officer at the bow who turned out to be her father. “I was wearing a red hat and a navy blue coat with red buttons,” she says. “My hat flew off into the ocean, and I was so excited to see him that I didn’t care.”

Gov. Shallenberger had encouraged his son to study languages as a young man, and he spoke four by the time the war ended. The skill won him a post as a military attaché in American embassies during the inter-war period. He started with a two-country post — Greece and Yugoslavia — with the family spending summers in Belgrade and winters in Athens. Brown remembers that she and her brother attended a school for foreign children in Athens, and they were invited with their teacher to play with the daughters of Prince Nicholas. They made a huge valentine for the princesses, with Greek and American flags behind windows and “roses are red” verses, and sent it to the palace with their father’s Yugoslav chauffeur. Soon they had a return message, delivered by a man with “a smart blue uniform with a short skirt and long white tights, and pompoms on his shoes, and a hat with a black tassel,” asking them to come to the palace for tea. Brown says it was shortly after a revolution brought King Constantine back to the throne of Greece, and U.S. recognition of the government was still pending. So her parents had not yet been to the palace. She and her brother “thought it was wonderful” that they were going there first.

Brown’s school was taught in French, and a young woman from a German agency stayed with her and her brother when their parents were gone and taught her German. In Belgrade she played with a little girl named Nada Cerovich, who taught her Serbian, mostly nouns. She continued to study German later when her father was posted to Austria and Hungary, so that she’s been able to give speeches in it. She’s found a grocer in Louisville with whom she can speak Serbian.

Brown was a horsewoman from the time of her father’s service on the Mexican border, and she and her husband bred Thoroughbreds at Ashbourne Farms, including one named Sally Shall. They also began breeding Shorthorn cattle after her grandfather gave her a purebred bull from his ranch in Nebraska, and their herd has produced champions. Brown is also credited with establishing Cavalier King Charles Spaniels as a registered breed in the U.S. “I was a horsewoman until my children ganged up on me,” she says. “First they said they didn’t want me to ride, then they didn’t want me to drive. All I’ve got left is my tractor.”

And that triggers a favorite Sally Brown story. A granddaughter overheard her quoting a colleague to the effect that, to succeed as a lobbyist, a woman needs to “look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man and work like a dog.” The granddaughter was intrigued, Brown says. “She asked me to repeat it several times.” Later the girl brought some friends to meet her grandmother, at a time when she happened to be seated on her tractor. “See, there’s my granny,” Brown remembers the girl saying. “She acts like a lady, works like a man and looks like a dog.”

Brown is a 1932 fine-arts graduate of Sweet Briar College in Virginia. “My grandfather wanted me to go to Wellesley,” she says, “but Mother said I was too unsophisticated.” She later spent 20 years on the college’s board of directors, and she has said she learned how to run a meeting there, and how to raise money and build a building — skills she has used prodigiously since. After graduation she went to Vienna, where her father was stationed then, as storm clouds gathered over Europe. But before that, she’d visited friends in Louisville and become acquainted with W.L. Lyons Brown. He came over to Vienna in 1935 and they were married at the British Embassy there. Brown was the grandson of Brown-Forman founder George Garvin Brown, and he and their children have all been officers in the company. The Browns became parents of W. Lee Lyons Brown Jr. — who was U.S. ambassador to Austria from 2001 to 2005 — and of Owsley Brown II, Martin S. Brown and Ina Brown Bond. W. L. Lyons Brown died in 1973. (Sally Brown is an aunt to Laura Lee Brown and mother-in-law to Christy Brown, two women featured in “Women Who Lead,” page 42.)

Brown’s national activities have included sitting on the boards of such organizations as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Trust for Public Land and Environmental Defense. “She may be the number-one conservationist in America,” David Jones says.

In Louisville, she was an early supporter of Actors Theatre of Louisville, and gave both money and time, with Jones and others, to the effort that removed the junkyards from the waterfront and replaced them with very popular parks. She was a founder and board member of River Fields, which was started — in the words of executive director Meme Runyon — “to develop studies and do analysis about urban issues, river issues, city planning” along the Ohio River corridor. “She has given current and future generations a great gift that has helped preserve rivers and landscapes across America,” Runyon says.

As might be expected, Brown is a major proponent and supporter of the “City of Parks” initiative to preserve a ring of green space all the way around Jefferson County. Jones, who has headed fund-raising for that effort, says he went to talk to Brown about it, and she already knew of it. “Will a million dollars help?” Jones says she asked, “and she sat down and wrote a check.”

Former Lt. Gov. Steve Henry, who worked with Brown on the waterfront project and other land-preservation issues, compares her to the late Mary Bingham. “They were so similar in some way,” he says. “The kindest of individuals — but at the same time they knew what they wanted to support and what results they wanted to have. ‘Unwavering,’ I think is the word. But I felt very comfortable with that. We always had the same goals and wanted to see the same results.”

Brown says the 9/11 attacks in New York had a very strong impact on her. It made her realize, she says, that life can end suddenly, and “if you care about something, you’d better get on with it.” Since then, she says, she has tried to focus more on two issues — global climate change and education. She has given money and served on the board of the Massachusetts-based Woods Hole Research Center, which did much preliminary work that led to the Kyoto Protocol, something she’d like to see adopted by more countries, including the U.S.

She has given money and time to Yale University — of which her son Owsley is a graduate — because she thinks education has hard work ahead to prepare leaders for the country, and Yale has a good handle on what students need to become ready.

And she stays on the move, as she always has. Jones says she spent two and a half hours in November touring new parkland in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, marveling and being enthusiastic. “She has such spirit,” Jones says.

Henry agrees. “The time you spend with individuals like Sally Brown you ought to be thankful for. The history and experience are priceless. Those are the people who built the country into what it is,” he says. “You have elegance and intelligence and philanthropy all rolled together.”

Sally Brown is, as a recent Kentucky Educational Television special phrased it, truly “a force of nature.”

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