Frank Brown became a familiar face to many while covering news as a reporter on Omaha television.
He parlayed that appeal and understanding of his community into a seat on the Omaha City Council, where he served from 1997 to 2009. He was known as a force that helped create housing options for the poor.
This week, Brown was remembered as that champion for the turf where he was raised — and as a man dedicated to family and a fan of Marvel comics. He died Thursday at age 65 after a lengthy battle with diabetes and complications from strokes.
“Frank was a strong advocate who cared about his district,” former Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey said. “He was tough when he had to be. He could be stubborn, in a good way. He was very forthright about his positions and tried to get as many things as possible for that district.”
Born and raised in north Omaha, Brown maintained a focus on the streets where he grew up watching his father manage a lounge and his mother work at an ice cream parlor. During interviews over the years, Brown recalled the bustle on North 24th Street as people shopped and mingled. As a teen in the 1960s, he worked odd jobs, including painting and finishing garages and cutting down noxious weeds.
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Later, as a councilman, he was known to use shrewd deal-making tactics to try to restore and improve areas of his youthful stomping grounds. At one point, he got the city to step up repairs on a sewer system that contributed to basement flooding by making passage of a new convention center and arena plan contingent on approval of a new sewer plan.
With many of his constituents distrustful of police, he sought the creation of a controversial new position, an independent auditor to investigate complaints against officers.
Fahey recalled Brown’s push within city government to improve North 24th Street and Love’s Jazz & Arts Center and to reinforce workforce development and job programs.
Brown graduated from Holy Name High School in 1971 and went on to Virginia Union University in Richmond, but he came home early to help care for his sick mother, Lyda Montgomery Brown.
Her death years later, in 2013, “took a big toll” on the youngest of the Brown siblings, said sister Marlene Brown-Gunn of Stone Mountain, Georgia. She said Frank Brown’s health further declined.
Brown-Gunn recalled her brother, who never married or had children, as thoroughly devoted to his hometown and his family.
“We were very close-knit,” she said. “He was a kindhearted person. He tried to help everyone.”
William Gunn recalled his brother-in-law reading often to their son, Christopher, when he was a boy. Frank Brown was a collector of Marvel comics, Gunn said, and the superhero connection was a way to touch base throughout the years for Brown and Christopher, now an adult with his own kids.
After a stint at KFAB radio, Brown spent 17 years as a local TV reporter. Before being elected to the City Council in 1997, he served as executive director of the memorial foundation named after Jimmy Wilson Jr., a police officer killed in the line of duty.
Paul Koneck, who served with Brown on the City Council, said Brown’s fact-oriented reporting background shined through as a public official.
“Frank was a strong voice on the City Council. He was very trustworthy; he kept his word,” said Koneck, now an Omaha firefighter. “And the thing about Frank that helped on the City Council was that he was fact-oriented. He checked information that was given to him. ... I really respected that about Frank.”
Koneck recalled Brown pressing to form a coalition on the council to create a majority “to move issues.”
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Among that group was Marc Kraft, who said Brown also brought to city government circles “an awareness about the disparity in how we treat different people.”
He recalled a time when Brown challenged a city official who assumed that a caller was black. “Frank asked, ‘Tell me, what does black sound like?’ I’m glad he brought that out.”
Kraft and Koneck described Brown as both passionate and stubborn.
“There is nothing wrong with either,” Kraft said. “There are times when you have to be one or the other or both.”
Former Rep. Brad Ashford, a former executive director of the Omaha Housing Authority, described Brown as a champion of the poor.
During most of his council tenure, Brown held leadership positions at the housing authority. He was appointed to the OHA board in 1998 and stepped down in 2006 to take a paid position as the first-ever director of the authority’s nonprofit arm, Housing in Omaha.
“He was always there for people in need, people in poverty, people in public housing,” Ashford said.
Brown had his constituents in mind, Ashford said, despite sometimes rubbing others the wrong way. He recalled, for example, Brown “probably violating some rules” by arranging to buy air conditioning units for elderly, low-income residents during a heat spell before the purchase was officially approved.
Brown was preceded in death by a sister, his mother and his father, Warren Hugh Brown. He is survived by two siblings. Funeral services will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at St. Mark Baptist Church at 3616 Spaulding St.
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In May 1997, Frank Brown was elected to his first term as a member of the Omaha City Council. In this March 1998 photo, council members Brown, left, and Subby Anzaldo look at photographs of the area around a proposed police and fire training facility to be built west of Wenninghoff Road.
In June 1997, Brown was elected vice president of the Omaha City Council.
Brown was elected City Council president in June 1998.
Brown served as acting Omaha mayor for four days in July 1998. In this photo from that same month, from left, City Council member Lormong Lo, Mayor Hal Daub and Brown, along with the Miller Park Sun Dawgs, participate in a groundbreaking for the Miller Park Family Aquatics Center.
Brown won re-election to the City Council in May 2001. Here the newly elected council members pose in front of the Legislative Chambers at the City-County Building. Front row, from left: Dan Welch, Chuck Sigerson and Franklin Thompson. Back row, from left: Marc Kraft, Garry Gernandt, Jim Vokal and Frank Brown.
In March 2005, Brown poses questions before the City Council voted unanimously to annex Elkhorn.
In May 2005, Brown was re-elected to the City Council. Here, newly elected or re-elected city officials posed for a portrait. From left, City Council members Chuck Sigerson, Frank Brown, Gary Gernandt and Jim Vokal, Mayor Mike Fahey, and council members Jim Suttle, Dan Welch and Franklin Thompson.
From left, Brown was joined by actor and rapper Ice-T and Pastor Robert J. Hall for the ribbon-cutting at the Charles B. Washington Library in Omaha.