PORTLAND – Turning 100 would be enough to merit a birthday party for most folks, but Cora Brown brought a lot more to Saturday’s celebration of her century as one of the city’s most revered residents.
About 100 people attended a surprise luncheon at the First Baptist Church to recognize the many good works of a woman whose contributions to the community have touched thousands of families over the years.
Since 1935, the West End resident has worked for two of Maine’s oldest charities — the Widows’ Wood Society and the Portland Diet Mission, which was renamed the Cora L. Brown Foundation in 2003.
Brown remains active in both groups, personally overseeing requests for food and fuel assistance from her neat Victorian-style home. It’s decorated with dozens of elephant statues honoring the Republican Party, which she represented as a poll worker for more than 60 years. She’s also a member of the Eastern Star, the Lincoln Club and the Chestnut United Methodist Church.
And that’s not the half of it.
“I once asked Cora how many organizations she belongs to,” recalled Halsey Frank, former chairman of the Republican City Committee. “I believe the number was 150 or 160.”
Indeed, Brown was surprised to be greeted Saturday afternoon by a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and a standing ovation. The party was organized by Robert and Shelley Quatrano, neighbors who have watched over her for 11 years.
“I didn’t know a thing about it,” Brown said between hugs and hellos. “I thought they were taking me to a bean supper. When I came in, I almost fainted.”
Several dignitaries attended the party, including U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, who recognized Brown as a fellow Republican and a fellow native of Aroostook County.
Collins noted that moving pictures and the Model T Ford were novelties when Cora Tompkins was born in Blaine on Aug. 21, 1910.
Collins praised Brown’s unflagging energy, compassion and faith and gave her a U.S. flag that flew over the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
“It really is all about heart,” Collins said, “because Cora’s heart is as big as they come.”
Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. read a proclamation naming her “Citizen of the Century” and City Councilor Cheryl Leeman delivered a letter of congratulations from U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, also a Republican.
“This gathering is really about community love and appreciation,” Leeman said. “It’s totally reflective of who Cora is. When people come to me and they’re among the working poor who don’t qualify for public programs, I refer them to Cora, especially in the winter when they need heating assistance.”
Brown is the agent for the city’s Widows’ Wood Society, Maine’s oldest municipal charity. Chartered by the Legislature in 1850, the society was endowed by prominent Portland citizens and is administered by a board of directors appointed by the City Council.
In the past, the society provided needy families with coal or wood, sometimes delivered by Brown in the trunk of her red Dodge. Last year, the society distributed about $40,000 in heating assistance to Portland residents, said John Knox, board president.
The Portland Diet Mission was started in 1878 by the wife of a Portland physician who saw sick and elderly people who needed nourishing food delivered to their homes. Today, the Cora Brown Foundation is sponsored by five Portland churches and provides $100 food vouchers to dozens of families each month.
Through the years, Brown has seen many families living among rats and cockroaches; mothers struggling to keep their kids warm, clothed and fed; fathers, rich and poor, shirking their duties.
Unhindered by the limits of public welfare programs, she made home visits to make sure clients had a genuine need. She wasn’t above telling people to straighten out, get a job and take some responsibility for their lives if she thought they were able.
“She had her way of giving people the once-over, but I don’t think too many people who really deserved help lost out,” said Mary-Jane Robichaud, a fellow church member.
Brown’s husband, Walter, died in 1950, when they were both 40 years old. They had one child, who died shortly after birth. She never remarried.
Several family members attended Saturday’s party, including a few nephews who came from as far away as California to celebrate their aunt’s special day. “I’m very proud to have an aunt as prominent as Cora Brown,” said Earl Savage of Fairfield, Conn.
In addition to her charity work, Brown had several careers. She taught fourth grade in Aroostook County, worked as a dietitian at Maine General Hospital, cooked for a wealthy Cape Elizabeth businessman, operated a restaurant at Woodfords Corner and fitted people for hearing aids in her shop on Congress Street.
Brown also was a board president, director and trustee for 35 years with the First Radio Parish Church of America, which is said to be the oldest continuing nonsectarian religious broadcast in the world. It started broadcasting from Portland in 1926.
The Rev. David Glusker, the program’s former pastor, remembered how Brown’s opinion mattered when he interviewed for the job 25 years ago.
“After the interviews, she said, ‘I want that Glusker fellow,’ and that sealed it,” Glusker said. “That began my love affair with Cora Brown. She’s not just a nice lady. She’s a community leader.”
Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: