Giles Brown

Giles Brown in front of the Giles T. Brown Forum in 2007. (Orange Coast College / November 14, 2007)

Newport-Mesa has lost a bellwether and an icon.

Retired Orange Coast College history professor Giles T. Brown died Saturday. He was 97.

The 65-year Newport Beach resident was modest and unassuming.

Brown was the college's last surviving charter faculty member. Hired in the summer of 1948 by founding OCC President Basil H. Peterson, Brown taught history and served as chairman of the college's social sciences division.

In 2007, OCC acknowledged Brown's extraordinary contributions when it named its 300-seat lecture hall the Giles T. Brown Forum.

"What a gentle soul," said retired OCC President David A. Grant.

"He had a mind of gigantic inquiry," said Grant, who was one of Brown's students in the 1950s. "He was always interested, always kind, always thoughtful. Orange Coast College is rightfully proud of its close association with him."

Brown left OCC in the fall of 1960 to lead the history department at Cal State Fullerton. He later served as Fullerton's dean of graduate studies and associate vice president of academic programs. But he continued to lead OCC's "Behind the Headlines" community lecture series through 1991 — for 42 years.

When Brown left OCC for Fullerton, more than 200 people signed a petition urging him to remain in charge of "Behind the Headlines," which allowed attendees, many of whom were retired, to discuss and analyze world events.

Brown said the program was Peterson's idea. The lectures took place each Tuesday during the school year, with 300 "students" showing up weekly at its height.

An international traveler who regularly met with world leaders, Brown led the discussion and frequently brought in guest speakers.

"In the fall of 1949, President Peterson asked me to conduct an adult class on world trends," Brown told me in a 1991 interview. "The campus, then, was a wind-swept mesa some distance from where people lived. Roads were primitive and public transportation nonexistent.

"We decided to hold the class in the parish hall of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach."

The class began with 14 members. Because college regulations required an enrollment of at least 15, a church custodian was "recruited" to make a full complement. When OCC's music building opened in 1954, the class moved to the campus.

Brown earned a bachelor's degree in history at San Diego State University and a master's degree from UC Berkeley. He completed a doctorate at Claremont Graduate School.

Brown, the son of a Baptist minister, met his wife, Beth Cosner Brown, at OCC, where they were both members of the original faculty. They married in 1951 in the campus chapel.

Beth was Giles' constant companion until her death in 1992. She served as OCC's librarian from 1948 to '52 and, following her passing, he donated nearly $500,000 in her memory to the college and its library.

"I remember the early years when Beth struggled to get the library going," Giles Brown told me in an October 1998 interview. "Money was never available for unexpected additional expenses that always crop up. It was hard for her.

"I wanted to establish an endowment that would provide OCC's library with an annual income stream for unexpected — but much needed — expenditures."

Giles Brown played a substantial role in the design of OCC's forum, which now bears his name. It was the first large lecture hall built on campus. When it opened in the spring of 1960, students good-naturedly dubbed it the Brown Derby. The prank was an obvious reference to the forum's designer and its curved facade, which resembled the famous Hollywood eatery.

From 1960 on, the forum hosted "Behind the Headlines."

"The series was so successful that the only way you could get a seat was to wait for a season subscriber to pass away," said Grant, who now serves as vice president on the Coast Community College District Board of Trustees.

For Brown, it required a huge investment of time and energy. It became a labor of love.

"It was a hoary project from the outset," Brown told me in a 1991 interview as he prepared to leave "Behind the Headlines." "The goal was to stimulate thinking about issues of the day."

Brown wrote the following in his 1957 "Behind the Headlines" annual report: "Most dictators welcome the engineer, the scientist, the builder and the athlete. What they fear is the thinking person. [It's] the aim of 'Behind the Headlines' to … be a vehicle for thinking in the tradition of the Lyceum, Chautauqua and the Town Hall."

Giles Brown was ever the thinking person.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.