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Dr. Kay Brower, Renaissance Man, 1928-2014

SOCORRO, N.M. February 13, 2014 -- Longtime New Mexico Tech Professor of Chemistry Dr. Kay Robert Brower is remembered as a gifted scientist, a dedicated teacher, and a man who influenced his family’s destinies and enriched the Socorro community through his intense love for classical music.

Brower, who had suffered from cardiopulmonary disease for many years, died in Socorro on January 4, 2014, at the age of 85. He leaves behind his wife, Elise; daughters Karen Brower Darnall of Camarillo, Calif., and Candace Brower of Albuquerque; three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, among other family.

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Dr. Kay Brower in a chemistry laboratory at New Mexico Tech.

 

He was born in Altus, Oklahoma, the only child of a watchmaker father. His mother died when he was only three years of age. He was cared for by a series of babysitters, the last of whom his father married, and she bore him three more children. Although an Oklahoman by birth, Brower spent most of his childhood in Hutchinson, Kan., in the Great Bend Sand Prairie region of the Great Plains, and identified with the Midwestern culture.

A lifelong love for music and movies began in Brower’s childhood when he would escape the realities of growing up during the Great Depression by going to the movies and listening to the music. Those experiences ignited a lifelong passion. Brower became enthralled with classical music, and it may have been then, daydreaming in a darkened theater, that he first began to think about having his own musical conservatory – someday.

That someday arrived in the form of Elise Edfors, the eldest of four children born to a father who had emigrated from Sweden at the age of 30. Her father was a mechanical engineer, and her mother was a secretary by trade, a singer and actress by avocation. Her mother’s brother played the piano at silent movies. Mrs. Edfors insisted that music be central to her children’s lives.

Brower, meanwhile, had won several college scholarships, including one to the University of Kansas; but felt he could receive a superior education at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., where he was accepted into an accelerated program. Elise was the only girl in her high school class to go to college, and was a freshman at Simmons College in Boston when she met Kay on a blind date.

The pair dated for about a year before getting betrothed by mail after Elise had been at Simmons for two years.

“I got engaged when I was only 20 years old, and my parents approved because now I had someone to take care of me,” she said. “Things were different for women back then. When we first met, Kay was hard to get to know.”

She recalls that early on, the pair started out on a walking tour of Boston in the morning, and literally walked all day.

“I think it was a stamina test,” Elise said with a smile.

Now formally engaged, Brower needed to find a job before the couple could marry, and he accepted a position with Goodyear Synthetic Rubber Co. in Texas. They saved money so Kay could continue his education at the University of Maine in Bangor, where Karen was born in 1951. He got his master’s degree in only one year, and then went on to earn his Ph.D. at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where Candace was born in 1953. Brower then did a post-doc with Roger Adams at the University of Illinois.

“He was a brilliant individual and very mature at 18,” Elise said.

Always an independent thinker, when Kay made up his mind to do something, he just plowed straight ahead. As an example, Kay took music classes while he was studying for his master’s degree, and the flute was the first instrument he learned to play. Elise said he would take one very difficult composition and learn it, piece by piece, until he had mastered it; in short, Kay Brower taught himself music theory.

A more concrete example of Brower’s steely self-discipline are the bound volumes of his memoirs, “The Life and Opinions of Kay Brower, Gentleman,” a massive collection of single-spaced entries that detail the thoughts and theories of someone who was very much a Renaissance man.

Among his many interests was photography, which Kay discovered at a young age; and it, too, was a lifelong passion. While living in Maine, his interest in the field grew at the request of family who wanted pictures of the Brower family in their northern environment.

“He started with a box camera – we had no money for equipment,” said Elise.

When it came time to find full-time employment, Kay had two offers, one from Haverford and the other from New Mexico Tech. Kay felt he would have more opportunities to conduct research at Tech, and he accepted the offer, arriving in Socorro in 1956.

He was determined to have a musical family and to live a musical life, and that life began in earnest in Socorro.

The family lived on “faculty hill” until Tech offered professors an opportunity to lease land. The Browers built a home custom-designed with a high ceiling to accommodate a pipe organ, which the couple had saved money to buy. In short, Kay designed his home, and his family, with music at the core.

After settling down in Socorro, Kay and Elise discovered that among the residents with musical abilities, there were no string players, so they decided to fill the musical gap by having their daughters learn to play string instruments. Karen and Candace had no choice.

“Our family was oriented around music, and Dad was extremely willful as to what our family life would be like,” Candace said. “He was an avid amateur musician in the best sense of the word.”

“I learned the oboe because Kay said the community needed an oboist,” said Elise. She also schooled her husband in the elements of music, basically starting from scratch. His own experience as a string player didn’t begin until Brower was well into adulthood. He started with the viola; and, in his 50s, began to play the cello.

Kay had always dreamed of having a house with a pipe organ. In 1969, he had an eight-rank, custom-designed pipe organ built for the Brower home. He also built instruments himself that included two harpsichords, a viola d’gamba, a number of woodwind instruments, and a small tracker organ.

While Kay and Elise were living in Houston, Texas from 1948 to 1950, Kay wanted Elise to share his interest in science. He coached her in math and physics using his own textbooks from MIT, until they reached the topic of “heat” at which time she became pregnant with Karen. When they moved to Socorro in 1956, she enrolled at New Mexico Tech and eventually earned a bachelor’s and master’s in chemistry, and a doctorate in geochemistry.

Both Kay and Elise helped found the Community Concert Series in the 1960s, an organization that over time morphed into the New Mexico Tech Performing Arts Series. Kay also served as the longtime treasurer of the Socorro County Historical Society, having acquired an appreciation for local history as a natural outgrowth of his reading. As treasurer, Brower was the first to research and invest Society funds. His love for documentation led him to photograph all the historical images on display at First State Bank, which he shared with the Society.

His early interest in the movies was cemented in childhood and never waned. Elise recalled that for their dates, “We always went to the movies,” and his written memoirs include the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 films of all time. His own film library is immense and meticulously organized.

Brower was a very frugal man who saved his money and invested funds wisely. As a sign of his thriftiness, Kay framed the jigsaw puzzles he completed, which are displayed in the Brower home. It was, Elise said, a way to save money on artwork.

His libraries were as massive and eclectic as his keen intellect, and when he wasn’t reading a book, Kay was working crossword puzzles, even during his last days in hospice, because he needed something to think about every waking moment. But even with his diverse interests, let’s not forget that Kay Brower was a scientist first and foremost. His collected memoirs reflect this foundation in that more than half of its entries have to do with chemistry, from theories to applications, accompanied with chemical equations that must have been painstaking to punch out on a manual typewriter.

A memorial service for Brower is scheduled for July 4, 2014, based on his interest in and experimentation in explosives – that’s right, in blowing things up. He had been experimenting since adolescence, when he used to blow up trees for neighboring farmers. Brower also made guns, fashioning his firearms with his usual flair for function over form. 

His research into high-pressure kinetics actually started when he joined the Chemistry Department at New Mexico Tech.

“Kay loved chemistry and he loved his career,” Elise said. “He also enjoyed teaching, and was a very good teacher. He enjoyed helping students.”

Brower, who retired from New Mexico Tech as a professor emeritus, was not a political animal, but he wasn’t afraid to stand up for his beliefs. He stayed clear of campus politics as much as possible, and when he did retire, it was because he felt it was time for someone else to have a job and the opportunity to build a career, as he had done some 40 years earlier.

The lives of Brower’s wife and daughters were influenced by his ideas and ideals, and stand as living testaments to them. Both daughters are now professional-quality string players who, with their mother, will play in concert later this month for family and friends, performing works by Bach, Albinoni and Mendelssohn and in the family home.

No doubt, Kay Robert Brower would be very proud.

– NMT –

By Valerie Kimble/New Mexico Tech