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Presley Brown ’52


After graduation in 1952, I joined, sequentially, several large corporations, enjoying a livable income and raising three children. But by 1976, I realized that I was underutilizing the most important part of my Swarthmore education: the quiet realization that I could participate in programs that benefit the world in some way and also satisfy my personal interests.

In that year I started a printing business large enough to fill local market needs, yet small enough to depend on personal contacts. This professional change removed a major source of stress: five 14-hour workdays per week.

The decision to leave large corporation employment meant sacrificing some income and the diminishing return of prestige attached to wearing a suit to work in lower Manhattan. I was aware of the imagery of looking down upon the cemetery of Trinity Church from a “cage” 10 stories above Wall Street. The forces that controlled 60 percent of my waking hours could not provide satisfaction.

This change was made possible because my parents, having survived the Great Depression, passed on the notion of thrift and living within one’s means. Part of my job had been supervising an in-house printing department, and this experience was crucial in organizing a new printing business. In the beginning I did everything; artwork, pre-press, running the press, finishing, packing and shipping, and bookwork. Days were long and sweaty, but I was in control. As Robert Frost said, “... And that has made all the difference.”

The business prospered, but never got large. It was possible to prevent plant expansion by forming an alliance with four other printers who could satisfy my capacity shortage. In 2008, I sold the last part of the business, but continue to assist a few organizations with their printing needs. Today, I miss being able to toss a 40-lb. carton of paper effortlessly or clean ink from under my fingernails.

Running a printing business left time to pursue other interests. These included restoring two 19th-century pump organs, putting a large pyramid roof on a shed, making repairs to the 1837 farmhouse we live in, maintaining a collection of 1,600 19th-century (and earlier) hymn books, photographing some 1,000 European Romanesque and Norman buildings, and constructing a birdhouse as a scale model of San Miguel de Lillo in Oviedo, Spain.

Of these “hands-on” activities, the restoration of a Mason & Hamlin 1885 American organ was the most challenging, taking five months.  To do this correctly meant studying the original manufacture of the instrument, including all of the materials used, methods of attachment, and how to achieve silence of the moving parts.

A far less complicated project was the birdhouse I made in the image of that small Asturian church, which seemed to call out a plea to be remembered as more than a pretty 11th-century building. I used aspen wood, carefully measured and painted to resemble the existing structure on Mount Naranco. The topmost roof is removable to help the birds. One of the life-satisfying benefits of a Swarthmore education is that it gives the graduate the choice of whether to build a corporation or a birdhouse.

Together, these activities strike a balance between raising the heart rate, maintaining motor skills, enjoying the collaboration of friends whose education will never stop, and keeping alive the idea that each of us is a link to history. There is no better model for accomplishing this than a Swarthmore education.

Now my basement has many boxes, cans, and jars filled with short lengths of wire and small metal pieces. I haven’t the slightest idea of their use. But I’m ready to find out.


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