Yale University

In Memoriam

Owsley Brown II

Owsley Brown
1964 graduation

Owsley Brown II died on September 26, 2011. Read his obituary and an editorial from the Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), and a remembrance by Christopher L. ("Kit") Kincade '64.


Sep. 27, 2011

Owsley Brown II, Louisville philanthropist and retired chairman of his family-controlled liquor company died late Monday after a brief illness.

Son-in-law Matthew Barzun said the death was the result of complications from pneumonia.

Brown, who turned 69 earlier this month, was a great-grandson of the founder of Brown-Forman and worked in the family business for about 40 years, including 12 years as chief executive.

During his tenure, the distiller expanded its footprint overseas, bringing brands such as Jack Daniel's and Southern Comfort to millions of new customers outside the United States.

On Brown's watch as CEO from 1993 to 2005, the company's stock value more than quadrupled and outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 index, a broad measure of U.S. stocks. Brown also served as chairman from 1995 until his retirement in 2007.

"Owsley was a personal friend to so many of us across the world and we are all shocked and saddened by his premature death," Paul Varga, who succeeded Brown as chief executive, said in a statement released Tuesday by the company. "Owsley was a truly remarkable man with a brilliant mind. ... He generously shared these unique gifts to build Brown-Forman into the global success it is today and to establish long-lasting friendships throughout our industry."

"Owsley Brown has left a legacy in our city in so many ways, from the arts, education and business community to the environment and interfaith issues," Mayor Greg Fischer said in a statement Tuesday. "I've lost a dear friend and the community has lost a compassionate man ."

A Republican until December 2006 when he became a Democrat, Brown supported Fischer, a Democrat, in his bid to replace Jerry Abramson, who was not seeking reelection.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement that he knew Brown for more than 30 years.

"Louisville lost a great friend today; he will be missed," McConnell said.

When he retired, Brown, a graduate of Yale and Stanford universities, said he would take a step toward another legacy: philanthropy. His efforts extended to organizations that supported art and music, historic preservation and environmental protection. He was active in Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Fund for the Arts and River Fields, where he was a board member.

Last year, his family's Owsley Brown Charitable Foundation of which he was president, gave $769,837 to a variety of churches and community groups, including more than $100,000 in donations to the Center for Interfaith Relations, according to tax records. In both 2006 and 2008, tax records show the foundation's giving totaled $1.2 million.

But his interest in the arts was more than financial.

A 1971 Courier-Journal article said it wasn't uncommon for Brown — as Actors' board president — to be seen cleaning windows or lugging props at the theater in his spare time. He also helped lead efforts for Actors to secure its current Main Street location.

Jon Jory, who led the theater for 31 years and founded the Humana Festival of New American Plays, said "Owsley was not only a friend, but a friend who amazed me. ... I have used him as my example of what one can be and do for years. "

In a 2007 Courier-Journal article about Brown's retirement, Christina Lee "Christy" Brown described her husband as a "brilliant thinker" with a passion for architecture and history. Contemplative and humble, he wouldn't readily admit that he spoke or read French, German and some Italian, and created oil paintings in his spare time, she said.

At the Speed Art Museum, he was vice chairman of the board and headed a building committee overseeing a planned expansion.

Christy and Owsley "were up in the galleries all the time," Speed director Charles Venable said in a phone interview. Brown would arrange his schedule so that meetings at the museum could be augmented by time seeing what was new in the galleries, Venable said.

Brown's death came five months after that of his mother, Sara Shallenberger "Sally" Brown, the family matriarch who was 100, and had spearheaded a restoration of the Locust Grove historic property.

After earning a master's in business administration from Stanford, Owsley Brown II worked as an Army intelligence officer at the Pentagon. Most of his adult years were spent with the family business. He started at Brown-Forman in 1961 as a summer employee, the company said.

At Brown-Forman, Brown oversaw the acquisition of key brands including Finlandia vodka and Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards.

While he broadened the company's spirits portfolio, his favorite cocktail was traditional: The company's founding brand, Old Forester Bourbon with ice and a little water in a tall glass.

Earlier this year, Brown received the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship and along with his wife, Christy, Greater Louisville Inc.'s Gold Cup award in honor of their civic and philanthropic leadership.

"Owsley instilled a culture of enduring growth for which the board and family are truly indebted," Geo. Garvin Brown IV, chairman of Brown-Forman's board of directors and Brown's cousin, said in a statement. "The continued strength of the company and its role as a responsible global citizen are the greatest testaments to his life's work."

Brown is survived by his wife, Christy; three children, Owsley III (Victoire), Brooke Barzun (Matthew), and Augusta Holland (Gill); and nine grandchildren.

A public visitation will be held Thursday at The Speed Art Museum from 3-6 p.m. The funeral will be 10 a.m. Friday at Christ Church Cathedral on Second Street followed by a private burial at Breeze Hill Farm, the Oldham County farm he owned with his wife.

The family requests that donations be directed to the Metro United Way or the Fund for the Arts.

"The last thing he would want in the world is for people to say, ‘well, now that he's gone we can't accomplish what he was helping us to accomplish,'" the Speed's Venable said. "He more than anybody knows that life can be fleeting and that Louisville needs to raise the bar and really do great things going forward."



Sep. 27, 2011

The sadly premature death Monday night of Owsley Brown II at the age of 69 deprives Louisville of one of its most generous and committed benefactors.

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth was right when he noted, "Nobody took the responsibilities of being a citizen more seriously" than Mr. Brown. His generosity and leadership in the fine arts, historic preservation and the quest for world peace set a gold standard for community leadership.

As chief executive of Brown-Forman from 1993 to 2005 and chairman from 1995 to 2007, Mr. Brown carried on a family legacy that dated back to the liquor company's founding in 1870. While in charge of the company, he led a vigorous effort to expand its international profile and to modernize the marketing of its brands, with the result that labels such as Jack Daniel's whiskey and Finlandia vodka became readily recognized worldwide. The company's financial returns were impressive.

However, as the liquor market — like most other industries — went global, Brown-Forman remained a Louisville company and a major corporate citizen. It has almost 1,200 local employees, still makes whiskey in Jefferson County and has resisted the impulse to move its headquarters despite what it feels is a tax climate that singles out its industry unfairly.

Mr. Brown's own role in his hometown was prominent. He served on numerous boards, and led fund-raising drives for the Greater Louisville Fund for the Arts and Actors Theatre of Louisville. He was lauded for his leadership in the rehabilitation of the Actors Theatre building, the Cathedral of the Assumption and Brown-Forman's building in the 600 block of West Main Street.

After retirement, Mr. Brown and his wife, Christy, expanded their already sizable philanthropic and community outreach, donating hundreds of thousands of dollars from his family's charitable foundation to religious and community groups. Last year's gifts included more than $100,000 to the Center for Interfaith Relations.

In one of his final public pronouncements, Mr. Brown used the occasion of receipt of the Woodrow Wilson Award for Corporate Citizenship in June to stress that in community life, as in business, better is preferable to bigger — and bigger is desirable only when it results from becoming better.

That serves as a fitting epitaph for Mr. Brown — an emphasis on excellence. And, as happened so often, he leaves his community yet another insight to ponder.



Christopher L. ("Kit") Kincade '64
Sep. 30, 2011

Owsley was a tremendous force for good in the Louisville community. In addition to the many philanthropic efforts cited in his obituary, Owsley also supported a program called "Bulldogs in the Bluegrass," where we bring Yale undergraduates to Louisville in the summer for internships. The genius and driver behind that movement, Rowan Claypool '80, extols the work of Owsley and his wife Christy in helping to get it off the ground.