by Henry Lane Hull
The history of the Northern Neck is replete with individuals of national and international significance. The peninsula has produced monumental leaders, extraordinary architecture and significant cultural achievements.
Recognizing this heritage, Sen. Robert O. Norris Jr., for whom the White Stone bridge is named, founded the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society in 1950.
Over the last seven decades the society has endeavored to preserve, conserve and promote knowledge and artifacts from our illustrious past for present and future generations to be able to comprehend the historical record and use it for the good of our citizens. In that effort Virginia Brown stands in the forefront of those who understood the value of history as a discipline and as a tool to enrich the present era.
Virginia was born in Southampton County. After her undergraduate years at Mary Washington College she came to teach in the schools of the Northern Neck and Essex County. She earned a master’s in library science from the College of William and Mary and soon became one of the most beloved teachers in our area.
A librarian by profession, Virginia gave students far more than reading. She encouraged them in many aspects of their lives, and today to speak with those who were her pupils, she retains their devotion and respect. She was a natural leader, one who rose to the presidency of nearly every organization to which she belonged, from the Mary Washington College Alumni Association to the Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society. Virginia was immersed in all aspects of history. She and her late husband, J. Dall Brown, lived in his historic family home, “Spring Grove,” at Mount Holly.
For over 15 years, in two iterations, Virginia served as chairman of the publications committee and editor of The Northern Neck of Virginia Historical Society Magazine. In that guise she produced some of the finest historical literature ever written about the land that her colleague, the late C. Jackson Simmons, termed “our moated Eden.”
Virginia also used her academic background to serve for decades as the librarian of the society’s collection, housed first in the old courthouse in Montross, and more recently in the headquarters’ building a short distance away. She organized the vast array of books, documents, manuscripts and artifacts in order for them to be accessible for scholars of history and genealogy from across the nation to be able to use in their research, whether it was for publication or simple curiosity about one’s family’s past.
She especially delighted in welcoming folks from far away and would include referencing them in her reports at membership and board meetings.
From 2006 to 2010 Virginia served as president of the society. During that period she organized interesting programs and continually worked to encourage the pursuit of knowledge and the celebration of history. For many years she was a hostess at some of the historical homes that were open for Historic Garden Week at which she would describe the building’s history, always trying to inculcate her own enthusiasm for the past in those touring the houses.
For Virginia the past was both real and tangible. She spent a great part of her lifetime working to share her knowledge in such a way as to demonstrate that history is important, reading is essential and kindness to others is the norm. A few years ago, while still president of the society, Virginia suffered a stroke, which she worked long and hard hours to overcome. Once back to her old self, her love of the past was even more manifest. Virginia was never too busy or preoccupied with other matters to miss the opportunity to share her knowledge, the mark of a truly great teacher. Hundreds of people who were the beneficiaries of her talents and kindnesses remain a collective testimony to her dedication for she was a genuine beacon in the modern history of the Northern Neck.
Last month Virginia died at the age of 89. She often referred to herself as one who had come here, but not as a come-here in the manner of the local idiom. The Northern Neck as many people know it today is the result of her prodigious efforts to share her knowledge and understanding of the dynamism of tradition.
Virginia Stith Felts Brown, April 27, 1929 – January 25, 2019. R.I.P.