When Donald Loring Brown walked across the United States in 1997, he set off from the Boston Marathon finish line in Copley Square. But his journey really began in a hospital room 16 years earlier.
Brown was a 36-year-old high school dropout with few prospects, unable to walk because of a knee injury, when a morphine-fueled dream convinced him that he would one day not only walk across the country, but also graduate from Harvard Law School.
“I was sky-high,” Brown said. “I was flying.”
Brown, now 67 and living in Revere, said his doctor dismissed his newfound lofty goals as the result of delirium. But Brown went on to accomplish both of them, a story he recounts in his book, “The Morphine Dream,” due out this fall.
Another of Brown’s visions also came true. While at Harvard Law, he wrote a paper on race relations that contained a fictional passage about how his classmate, Barack Obama, would go on to become president of the United States. Brown got only the year and opponent wrong, picking Obama to beat Newt Gingrich in 2004 instead of John McCain in 2008.
“I had that sense that he would become that special, and everybody did,” Brown said of his classmate. “It wasn’t just me.”
Brown has actually walked across the country three times, in 1997, 2001, and 2006. The first took him 144 days, including trips back home for business. Brown said he subconsciously planned the journey as a walk through his own life, mapping out a circuitous route that brought him to homes of old friends and other places important to him.
“It was just something I had to do,” Brown said of the walk. “I had focused on it for so long. When I decide to do something, I’m going to do it. I don’t care how crazy it was.”
Appropriate for Brown, his path to higher education took a nontraditional route. After dropping out of school in Westwood at age 17, he enlisted in the Marines. Injuries and illness ended his pursuit of baseball and football careers. Brown was working as a construction laborer when he severely injured his knee, leading to the surgery that produced “The Morphine Dream.”
His higher education began at Mount Wachusett Community College in Gardner, spurred by a marketer calling to offer him a free class.
From there, he transferred to Amherst College, where he worked as a driver for Peter Pouncey, then the president of the school. Pouncey eventually wrote a letter of recommendation that helped Brown get into Harvard Law School.
In the meantime, Brown regained the use of his knee through the surgery and began walking 20 miles a day in preparation of fulfilling his transcontinental ambitions.
Rebecca Sinos, one of Brown’s professors at Amherst, said Brown worked hard and visited with professors to help him catch up to his peers. “He felt behind in certain ways and was determined to make up for lost time,” Sinos said. “He had a dream, and he stuck to it.”
Harvard Law professor David Wilkins said he vividly remembers seeing Brown for the first time. “I was a very new, totally nervous junior faculty member teaching my first class. I look up, and there sitting in the back row is a guy in a suit and tie that looks older than me,” Wilkins said. “I think, ‘Who is this guy; what is he doing in my class?’ ’’
Wilkins said he soon realized Brown was an extraordinary person. “The thing that stuck out the most about him then is the same thing that sticks out about him now, which is his incredible passion for trying to do good in the world,” Wilkins said.
There were more obstacles to overcome. Brown graduated from Harvard Law in 1989 and had his license suspended three years later after it was determined that he took money from client funds. Brown said he had permission to borrow the money and that he used it to expand his legal practice, but his license was never restored.
“He was a good lawyer. So for this to be taken away was catastrophic for this guy’s life,” said Gary S. Chafetz, who edited “The Morphine Dream.” “It was a cruel, ironic blow.”
“Most people would have been crushed by that, and they never would have recovered,” said Wilkins. “Instead, he has remade himself over and over and over again.”
Brown moved on to a career in medical practice management consulting, and later worked as an adjunct professor at area colleges, including MassBay Community College and Mount Ida College. He’s now retired and working on several writing projects.
Jill Mehler, who worked with Brown at Mount Ida, called him “larger than life.”
“Most of the time if you ask me about somebody who left a couple of years ago, I’d have trouble remembering who he was,” Mehler said. “With Don Brown, you remember right away.”
“In many ways,” said Wilkins, “Don Brown is the quintessential American story, that if you have the drive and determination and intelligence, and also the willingness to get up from your own mistakes and to keep moving forward, and this unbelievable optimism about life, you can do anything.”
Brown dismissed the ups and downs of his life as “just the way it is.”
“Who cares if I had problems? Who cares if I had success?” Brown said. “It doesn’t really matter. I don’t feel like I’m anything special. I look back at Mount Wachusett Community College and Amherst and Harvard. Aren’t I lucky? I was blessed to have these things in my life.”Calvin Hennick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.