Dr. Robert W. Browne kept these words close to his heart: “Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” Although the words belong to American philosopher and author Henry David Thoreau, Dr. Browne committed his life to the essence of their meaning. He believed that self-reliance and a tireless work ethic result in a rewarding life.
Dr. Browne died peacefully on January 8, 2022 of natural causes at his home in North Palm Beach, Florida, after a long and well fulfilled life. As a dentist, orthodontist, self-taught business entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Dr. Browne proved conclusively that there’s no more sure way to achieve one’s dreams than good old-fashioned hard work.
Dr. Browne took his first step toward self-reliance as a boy on the farm of his grandparents, Henry and Muriel Brown, in Coldwater, Michigan, where he was raised from the age of two after his parents divorced. He attended a one-room school with 17 students in first through eighth grades. His home at the farm had neither electricity nor plumbing.
Like many others of his generation, Dr. Browne’s life was profoundly shaped by two global events, the Great Depression (1929-1941) and World War II (1939 – 1945). Dr. Browne responded to the financial challenges of his Depression-era childhood by developing his strong work ethic very early in life. In addition to the traditional strenuous work associated with growing up on a working farm, he proved himself an accomplished self-starter with jobs picking potatoes for five cents a crate, cleaning and running errands for a men’s clothing store for 10 cents an hour, delivering the Coldwater Daily Reporter on his bicycle, and working at the Standard Oil gas station. Yet he seldom missed a day of school because he knew education was critical to building the life he envisioned.
At Coldwater High School, Dr. Browne played football, basketball, and tennis. During his senior year, his leadership was recognized by students in all four classes, when they elected him Mayor of the student body, one of his proudest honors. Although he later was able to travel the world with his wife of 63 years, Lynn, Dr. Browne often reflected that those simple days in his small hometown of Coldwater were some of the best in his life, and formed the foundation for the success he would later achieve.
In the fall of 1942, he enrolled at the University of Michigan and worked a night shift in a factory to pay for his tuition and expenses. “I got used to long hours and little sleep at an early age,” he used to joke. “I learned that even small jobs count when done to the best of one’s ability.”
Dr. Browne was part of America’s “greatest generation” and proudly opted to suspend his academic aspirations to enlist into the Army Air Corps during World War II. Never having flown in a plane before enlistment, he became a Pilot and flew bombing missions in the South Pacific. Released to the Reserves as a first lieutenant, he was awarded the Air Medal with Clusters, a Bronze Service Star, and a Presidential Unit Citation.
Upon completion of his military duty, Dr. Browne returned to the University of Michigan committed to achieve his chosen profession. During summer recess he worked double shifts in the auto plants to cover his educational expenses. He completed his Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry in 1948, and graduated from the university’s dental school in 1952. Following graduation from dental school, Dr. Browne established a successful dental practice in Kalamazoo, Michigan, but soon returned to the University of Michigan to earn an advanced degree in Orthodontics in 1959. He then moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he developed a successful career in orthodontics and spent the rest of his career.
It was in Grand Rapids that he teamed with fellow dentist, Dr. Robert Richards, and several others to form John Roberts Corporation to acquire Springbrook Nursing Home and several other nursing homes in Michigan. Dr. Browne brought a personal stake to the prospect of operating these much-needed facilities. The infirmity of his grandmother demanded he hire two women to provide for her around-the-clock in-home care. At the time, only a handful of “mom and pop” homes existed in the area. “I knew of the need and I wanted to contribute to the community,” Dr. Browne said. “We were interested in helping to provide quality facilities for the care of people. At the same time our interest in the real estate provided security for our families.”
As founder, chairman, and CEO of Care Corporation (the successor to John Roberts Corporation), Dr. Browne oversaw the building and acquisition of skilled and intermediate nursing homes around the country. The company would ultimately become the ninth largest chain in the United States. Care Corporation also had a real estate and recreation division that owned about 25 bowling establishments, golf courses, tennis clubs, assisted living apartments, and a large office building. In 1968, the company went public and was traded on the American stock exchange. It was sold to Owens Illinois Corporation in 1986.
Following the sale of Care Corporation in 1986, Dr. Browne served as chairman and president of Trust Investment Management Corporation (TIMCOR) in Grand Rapids and was active in various philanthropic efforts. Dr. Browne and Lynn derived their deepest peace and satisfaction sharing their good fortune with institutions and individuals that led to their success. “Success is never singularly achieved,” Dr. Browne maintained. “We recognized our responsibilities for meaningful gratitude. Besides, a sincere act of giving is far more gratifying to the giver than the recipient.”
A sampling of the Brownes’ philanthropic efforts include:
• Coldwater United Methodist Church
• Coldwater Henry L Brown Municipal Building
• Coldwater Aquatic Center
• Coldwater Recreation Center
• University of Michigan School of Dentistry
• Four endowed University Professor chairs
• University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center
• University of Michigan Schembechler Hall
• University of Michigan Athletics
• Aquinas College
• DePauw University
• The Porter Hills Foundation
“I feel satisfied Lynn and I made a contribution to society,” Dr. Browne said shortly before his death. “We served our country with the professions we chose. Lynn served as a hospital dietician and later as a hospital volunteer. I served as a World War II Air Corps Pilot, a dentist, a provider of health care facilities, and created Care Corporation with more than 7000 employees.” As he titled his 2008 autobiography, “Who could ask for anything more.”
Dr. Browne is survived by daughters Dr. Cynthia A. Browne of Aiken SC and Diane L. Browne of Evanston IL; son James R. Browne (Gail L.) of Dallas TX; grandchildren Claire (Jeremy) Goerner, Matthew, Jonathan, Christina, Camille, and Elena, and great-grandchildren Emerson, Marlowe and Aubrie (Goerner). Dr. Browne was preceded in death by his sister Phyllis, his wife Lynn, and his son, Thomas G. Browne.
The family will receive relatives and friends Wednesday, January 19 at the funeral home from 6 - 8pm.
Mass of Christian Burial will be held Thursday 11:00am, January 20th at St. Robert of Newminster Catholic Parish, 6477 Ada Dr. SE Ada, 49301. Interment will follow the service at Woodlawn West Cemetery. A reception will follow at Cascade Hills Country Club, 3725 Cascade Rd. SE, Grand Rapids.
In lieu of flowers, those who wish may make contributions in Dr. Browne’s memory to The Porter Hills Foundation (https://foundation.umrcph.com/donate-online/porterhills/).
Porter Hills Foundation Benevolent Fund
4450 Cascade Rd. S.E., Grand Rapids MI 49546