Leave it to beloved Garces High School coach and art teacher Mark Brown to saunter into retirement unconventionally.
“Brownie,” as he is affectionately known, has always done things in his signature cool and easygoing way, although doing so under the dark cloud of a national emergency isn’t exactly what he envisioned.
The school’s longest-tenured teacher in its history expected to walk across the graduation stage with his students for the last time after 42 years in mid-May. But little more than two months ago, the new coronavirus, a word that wasn’t part of anyone’s lexicon when the school year began, brought on-campus studies to a screeching halt, forcing faculty and students to utilize online instruction through the end of the semester.
There will be no senior prom to chaperone. No senior sunset to oversee. No swim meets to coach. No ceremonial pomp and circumstance.
Brown’s classroom, a shrine to more than four decades of teaching, remains as it was March 13 when the pandemic changed school life as he knew it.
“Never has anything like this happened. I’m OK, but I’m sorry I can’t see anybody off — my students, my fellow teachers,” Brown lamented by phone. “It is such a bummer, my last year, to not see the graduation.”
An institution at Garces, it will be hard to imagine the school without his larger-than-life personality come fall, whether it be in the classroom or the press box.
“Mark Brown is woven into the culture on the Garces campus,” said its Athletic Director Gino Lacava, calling Brown “irreplaceable.” “He has affected more students, athletes and football fans than anyone since our establishment.”
When Brown arrived, he was fresh out of college. The Illinois native, who was raised in the Bay Area, attended Cal State Bakersfield on a basketball scholarship and picked up his teaching credential at San Jose State.
“I was just 22. I interviewed with Bob Carroll who was riding a tractor across campus and chewing tobacco,” he recalled. “He and Bob Garcia hired me in 1978. Mary Smile kicked me out of the office because she thought I was a student,” he laughed, recalling the school’s legendary typing instructor.
“I was making about $649 a month, living in a studio apartment and driving a Volkswagen. That was a lot of money back then and I was in hog heaven,” he remembered.
He met his wife, Marirose, two years later. Their children would go on to attend Garces.
“I think I worked with 11 principals, different administrations and uncertain times the school faced,” he said.
Brown says it was the kids who kept him going to work every day. As technology changed the way instructors taught, Brown kept things old-school.
“I knew how to do roll call and enter grades, but that was about it,” he said.
Over the years, Brown had a front-row seat to the campus’s physical improvements and he wore many hats. From barbecues, moderating clubs, coaching and football play-by-play, it seems there was nothing he couldn’t do.
“I’ve spent two-thirds of my life at Garces. It’s my home,” he said. “To see the kids grow up, then teach their kids, the second generations, it’s been great.”
One of those students, Johnny Soper, whose mother Marcie is also a graduate, remembers sharing the press box with Brown during home football games.
“Mr. Brown is like an urban legend and a comedic machine. Often my stomach hurt from laughing at things he said during the games we called,” he said.
Brown has been the voice of Rams Football for nearly 40 years, treating boosters to his trademark expressions like “holy Toledo sports fans!”
“That was a good gig right there,” Brown said. “I had the best seat in town.”
And it seemed there wasn’t a sports team Brown couldn’t take under his wing and leave his mark on. The Californian named Brown its All-Area Coach of the Year in 1989 for boys tennis.
“The kids kept me young and it is the hard part of leaving,” he said. “They are like my own and I’m really going to miss them.”
“Mark is a perfect example of what it means to be a part of the Garces family up here,” said principal Myka Peck. “His energy and love for this school and students will truly be missed.” Brown and his wife will relocate to Sacramento to be closer to three of their four children. He expects to fill his days with hunting, fishing, rounds of golf and yard work. And perhaps finding another swim club to coach.
Brown says he began flirting with the idea of retirement a few years ago.
“I thought 2020 might be a good number,” he said. “Guess that was a bad idea.”
Undeterred, he promised to be back for the retirement party that was canceled and check in on his Garces family. ￼
Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lisa Kimble.