Politics were set aside at the state Capitol Wednesday in honor of former Speaker Nelson Brown, whose casket was on view for people to pay their last respects.
Brown, who died Sept. 7 at 89, was well-liked and known for his friendly demeanor and accepting nature.
Boards with newspaper clippings depicting the evolution of Brown’s public career were set up along the line to where his casket lay in the north lobby. Over the course of his life, he wore many hats.
He was a radio broadcaster and served in the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. He served three terms in the General Assembly and became the youngest House Speaker in 1957 at age 35. He eventually left office and became a lobbyist for open and transparent government.
But many of the folks who came to Hartford to pay their respects said what was most notable about Brown was the respect he showed everyone he came into contact with—from the Capitol janitorial staff to the governor, he treated everyone the same.
Former Republican state chairman Chris Healy said that to Brown, a Republican, it didn’t matter what your political affiliations were. He was welcoming and a friend to everyone in the Capitol community.
“Whether you were a fire-breathing Bolshevist or a die-hard capitalist, Nelson was your friend,” he said.
In that spirit, partisanship went out the window for the ceremonial viewing. House Minority Leader Larry Cafero chatted with Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey as both waited in line to pay their respects.
Cafero said when he first met Brown as a freshman legislator, he didn’t know he was a former speaker of the House until someone told him.
“He was so unassuming and without guile you would never know he was a speaker,” he said.
The bipartisan Reapportionment Committee, charged with redrawing the state’s political districts, is be looking to find someone like Brown who is respected by both parties, for its ninth member, he said. Brown served twice as the ninth member in 1991 and 2001. But Cafero said finding someone with his qualities will be almost impossible.
Current House Speaker Chris Donovan said it was fitting that that the viewing was held at the state Capitol because the House of Representatives was his home.
Donovan said he only knew Brown in his capacity as a lobbyist. He was a unique kind of lobbyist, he said, one that pushed his issues in an unassuming but forthright way.
“He was almost apologetic when he wanted to lobby you,” Donovan said. “And he always listened to what you had to say.”
Brown will be missed by everyone in the community, he said.
“We’re kind of a family here at the Capitol and he was one of our favorite relatives,” he said.
A defining moment in Brown’s political career came in 1957, when as speaker he broke a 133-133 tie vote on a bill to allow public funds to pay for the school bus services of private and Catholic school children. Many thought the decision would hurt his chances for advancement within the Republican party.
Former state Sen. Billy Ciotto said he was at the Capitol that day and remembers the dramatic moment.
“He knew it would hurt him politically but he did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said. “A kid is a kid, it doesn’t matter where he goes to school. That was Nelson Brown, that was his heart speaking.”
Healy said Brown served the state well even after leaving office and becoming a lobbyist through his work on behalf of freedom of information.
“He was devoted to open and transparent government and as a result Connecticut has one of the most open governments around,” he said.
Michael Riley, president of the Motor Transport Association of Connecticut, said Brown pulled off an impressive feat working at the Capitol for so many decades without making any enemies.
“Everybody else has got their scars but Nellie only had friends,” he said.
According to the Capitol police about 700 of those friends turned out Wednesday to see him off.
The Office of Legislative Management said staff members could not recall a viewing being held at the Capitol since former Gov. Ella T. Grasso died in 1981.