ROCK FALLS – Roaming through a bookstore during his college days, Jeff Brown came across a plaque hanging on a wall.
“Become the one you dream you can be.”
The message would change his life for the better. With $2.50 in his pocket, the thought drove him to buy the plaque and soak in the meaning.
It continues to be the motto for Rock Falls Middle School, which Brown called a second home for 29 years as its principal before retiring in 2015.
Today, letters are affixed to the outside of the school’s gym and soon will be painted on a wall inside it, spelling Brown’s name.
Jeff Brown Gymnasium will be dedicated during a ceremony at 7 p.m. Sept. 20.
“It’s an incredible honor,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing. I didn’t expect it.”
The District 13 Board of Education approved the honor last month.
“Over those 29 years, Mr. Brown touched the lives of thousand’s of Rock Falls students, parents and community members,” Superintendent Dan Arickx said. “His outgoing personality and gift of communicating endeared him to many in the community.”
When people see Brown’s name on the walls of the gym, they’ll think about the positive atmosphere he created and maintained in his three-decade tenure, teacher Todd Sigel said.
Sigel, who lived next door to Brown growing up, began his 21st year at RFMS and considers Brown one of his best friends.
“A lot of times when I see past students, they’ll always ask me how Mr. Brown’s doing,” he said. “The positive comments and motivational stuff, it’s just inspirational. That’s the kind of stuff that he has an impact, not just with students, but even the parents. It’s crazy how many people know him and how many lives he touches today.”
Brown, 63, came to Rock Falls after serving 2 years as principal of the since-closed Ben Funk Elementary School in Heyworth. He spent 3 years teaching there, and looked up to its longtime principal, Fairy Martin, whom he eventually replaced in 1984.
“I called her my Fairy godmother,” he said.
One day, Martin had a talk with Brown about his future. She saw him as either a “principal or a preacher,” he recalled. He initially had aspirations to be a college basketball coach, but Martin inspired him to “coach a school” instead.
He moved to Rock Falls in 1986, but that nearly didn’t happen. He and Dawn were on their honeymoon when the principal position at RFMS became open. He also had been offered a position at a middle school in Bloomington, Indiana.
Luckily for Brown, District 13 Superintendent Jack Etnyre was very much invested in him.
“I called up the central office and said, ‘I think I’m just going to stay where I’m at,’” he said. “Jack Etnyre, said, ‘No, we’ll wait an extra week, and we’d really like to talk to you.’”
The school’s previous principal had been fired because of disciplinary issues. The culture was in trouble. Brown set forth right away to change the school for the better, and make sure its students felt safe.
“I thought, ‘I’m young, but let’s do it,’” Brown said. “I know there were challenges, but I felt that I was young enough and had enough knowledge with student discipline, classroom management and so forth. Positive discipline was something that I was familiar with and good at.”
There have been highs and lows: Sixth grade students moved to the middle school in the mid-1990s, and the district went through a long teacher’s strike in 1999. The same with his workload: He’s also been an athletic director, counselor and served as a boys basketball coach for a year.
He formed a leadership team with Rock Falls Police, Whiteside County Sheriff’s office and the county housing authority to better inform each other of what’s happening in the community. Issues were noticed quicker, and solutions to those problems were fought off.
One of Brown’s best memories came from eighth-grade exit surveys.
“The one thing that they liked best was the discipline. They always felt safe. If you teach with love, lead with love and positivity, good things will result.”
Most principals don’t sit behind the same desk for very long, he said, and his longevity was rare among public schools. He had been given six other job offers, and was en route to one contract signing before making a U-turn with a change of heart.
Eventually the time came to say goodbye to the school, but not education. He now is an administrative mentor who guides young principals and organizes workshops, keeping the same positive philosophy he’s had throughout his more than 30 years in education.
“You came to work every day, no matter what attitude you’re in, and he just enlightens it,” Sigel said.
The honor comes at a cathartic time for Brown; he and his twin sister were adopted, and he recently discovered who their parents were.
“I realized real early on in my tenure that there was so much to be done here, and in this community. People appreciate it. The community of Rock Falls, they’ve been loving, they’ve embraced me and my family, and it’s been absolutely the best place I could have ever ended up.
“Coming to Rock Falls was my destiny.”
Did you know?
Jeff Brown, retired principal at Rock Falls Middle School, is one of three administrators of Rock Falls schools to have a gymnasium named in their honor. The others are Forrest L. Tabor at Rock Falls High School, and Pete Ternetti at East Coloma-Nelson.