Dorothy Lee Brown’s most visible legacy to the City of Sonora can be seen each year on the day after Thanksgiving as thousands of people flock to the downtown area for the annual Christmas parade.
Brown, who died on April 4 at age 82 following a battle with cancer, is credited as one of the driving forces behind the ever-popular event that began in 1984. She proposed the idea for the parade as a way to revive sales for downtown businesses that had suffered from the development of shopping centers on the city’s outskirts.
“We came from Imperial Valley and they had a Christmas parade in the desert,” said her husband, Jim Brown, 81, of Jamestown. “She said, ‘We have a Christmas parade in the desert, why can’t we have one where the pine trees are?’ ”
The idea paid off as more than 1,500 people attended the inaugural parade. Now, as many as 10,000 people crowd the city’s streets each year for the event that will celebrate its 35th anniversary in November.
An article in The Union Democrat from 1990 about Dorothy Brown retiring as the main organizer of the parade stated that the parade had received attention as a worthwhile holiday attraction in both Sunset Magazine and AAA’s travel guide by the end of her tenure.
Dorothy Brown earned the nickname “Mother Christmas” not only for founding the parade, but also for launching the Santa’s Workshop attraction in the 1980s and was able to get inmates at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown to build it.
In addition to Christmas events, Dorothy Brown was also one of the founding board members of the now-defunct Sonora Improvement Association that helped launch the annual Sonora Certified Farmers Market in 1989.
The Sonora Improvement Association was formed in the 1980s to address a growing number of empty storefronts along Washington Street at the time and helped Sonora become one of the pilot cities in the state’s Main Street revitalization program.
Dorothy Brown is also credited with being involved in the founding of an event called the “Art Promenade” that later grew into the annual Spring Festival held on the last Saturday in April each year, according to Sheala Wilkinson, who has organized the event as the city’s special programs coordinator since 1999.
The festival also regularly draws thousands of people to the downtown area.
“(Dorothy Brown’s legacy to the city) would be the really cool events downtown and bringing everybody together,” Wilkinson said. “She was a mover-and-shaker of her time.”
Dorothy Brown was born on Feb. 2, 1936, in La Mesa.
She was raised by her mother’s sister’s family and was nonverbal until age 8 because of being abandoned by her parents.
“They said she would never amount to much because of her upbringing,” Jim Brown said. “She sure fooled some people, because she amounted to very much.”
Dorothy and Jim Brown met through their church while he was working as a journeyman printer for the Holtville Tribune in Holtville and she was finishing her last year of high school because she began her schooling a year late.
Jim Brown said she was the first and only woman he ever dated. After three years of dating, they got married on Feb. 20, 1958, in Holtville.
“I never considered anybody else,” he said. “She was a very outgoing person, a people person, and I wasn’t as much. Opposites attract.”
Jim Brown came from a family that made their living in newspapers. His father was a linotype machine operator for the Los Angeles Times, while his mother was a stringer for the Los Angeles Times in El Centro and ran her own weekly newspaper there.
Dorothy Brown had wanted to have many children but was told she would not be able to have any. The couple adopted their eldest daughter, Nancy Lee Brown, whom they had been raising for about eight years prior to the adoption in 1967.
As the adoption was being finalized, the couple found out that Dorothy Brown was pregnant with their first and only biological child, Lauralee Brown.
In 1969, the family moved from San Diego to Sonora after former Union Democrat owner Harvey McGee hired Jim Brown to work for his commercial printing operation called the Mother Lode Press.
Jim Brown worked as the chief printer at Mother Lode Press for 10 years before purchasing his own printing shop in 1979 that he re-christened as Gold Rush Printing. He said the shop was located in the building that now houses the Banyan Tree Store, and the family lived in a flat on the second floor.
Dorothy Brown, meanwhile, left her paper route at The Union Democrat to work as the office manager for the printing shop.
The couple ran the shop for 10 years before selling it in 1989, though Jim Brown continued working at it for another 18 years. Dorothy Brown moved on to become a nanny mostly taking care of the children of teachers at local schools.
While helping to run the print shop in the 1980s, Dorothy Brown became involved with promoting the downtown area.
“Mom’s life as a community member just took off,” said her daughter Lauralee Brown, 50, of Sonora.
In a 1989 article honoring community volunteers, the city’s former Main Street Program Manager Elena-Marie Koster — now Elena Linehan — was quoted referring to Dorothy Brown as “the biggest supporter of Main Street and downtown that there is.”
In addition to downtown promotion, Dorothy and Jim Brown were involved for more than 20 years with the Kiwanis Club of Greater Sonora. They also volunteered for the past 30 years as Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the annual Community Christmas Eve Day Dinner at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds.
Dorothy Brown also was a survivor of breast cancer and tongue cancer. She was re-diagnosed with tongue cancer last year and admitted to Adventist Health Sonora’s Sierra Care Center Unit 6 in November.
On Feb. 20, Dorothy and Jim Brown celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary, something that Lauralee Brown said was important to her mother.
Lauralee Brown said her sister, Nancy Lee Brown, died on March 21 in Kennewick, Washington, from a heart condition at age 60. She didn’t get news of her sister’s death until a week later and told her mother on March 28.
“The first thing she did was say, ‘I’m glad she’s at peace,’ and then she went to sleep,” Lauralee Brown said of her mother’s reaction. “She didn’t go into a coma, but she never woke up.”
Dorothy Brown died exactly one week to the day later.
Lauralee Brown has established a new scholarship fund with a focus on early childhood development in her mother’s name at the Sonora Area Foundation to honor her mother’s lifelong passion and commitment to children.
“Every child she thought was her child,” Lauralee Brown said. “Kids were also attracted to her because of the love that she exuded.”
Contributions can be made via check payable to Sonora Area Foundation and specify the donation is for Dorothy Lee Brown Scholarship Fund. The foundation is at 362 S. Stewart St., Sonora, or donations can be made online by going to www.sonora-area.org.
A memorial service will take place at 3 p.m. April 29 at the Sonora Opera Hall, 250 S. Washington St.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.