If you ever attended some obscure government committee meeting or neighborhood confab anywhere in Volusia County – I don’t mean the scripted pageantry of some stilted city commission or county council meeting – but those seemingly insignificant advisory boards or off-the-radar discussions where the real work gets done, you likely overlooked the smartest, most influential person in the room.
Trust me. It was not the powerful chairperson or any of those self-important elected and appointed officials primping and peacocking on the dais of power.
Somewhere in the back of the room, usually noshing on a plate of complimentary hors d’oeuvres, would be a bearded man clad in a rumpled cap, omnipresent shorts, wrinkled shirt, and scuffed Crocs, an overstuffed notebook in hand with a wry smile; quietly, almost distractedly, taking it all in.
A disheveled character silently working the mental gymnastics required to link the intricate puzzle pieces with the swirling rumors and insider backstories inherent to local politics. Using his decades of hard-earned experience and well-honed instincts to winnow the wheat from the chaff and make sense of the nonsensical.
Then promptly at 4:00pm each weekday, Big John – Volusia County’s unlikely political conscience – took to the airwaves for a “strenuous two-hours” of radio, distilling all he gleaned from the countless meetings and far-flung sources down to something us rubes who comprise his loyal “21 listeners” could understand – trying valiantly to educate the masses on the bureaucratic maneuvers and governmental intrigue that affect our lives and livelihoods here on Florida’s fabled Fun Coast.
Because, according to Volusia County’s preeminent political pundit, when it comes to local government, “Nobody knows nothing.”
He was right.
Born John Walter Brower (no relation), a New Jersey native, raised in a diverse neighborhood in Asbury Park, John received a degree in political science from prestigious Rutgers University (“Rahway State” as he liked to joke) before going to work for the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company following graduation.
Upon earning his “Ph.D in Tireology,” John moved to Florida in 1972.
For many years, Big John – to which he legally changed his name in 1979 – operated three successful tire and muffler stores throughout Volusia County – his lively persona made famous by humorous television, radio, and newspaper commercials featuring Big in his trademark blue work shirt.
I first met Big at his “Lubritorium” on Mason Avenue in Holly Hill when I was a young and idealistic police officer.
He called the police department after discovering that someone had tied a string to a set of shock absorbers, running the line through an open window of a storage room in an obvious attempt to steal the items after the business closed.
After dark, I concealed myself in a good vantage point and waited – for hours – finally catching the thief (a down-on-his-luck employee) red-handed.
Rather than seek retribution, in his own benevolent way, Big John was more interested in the why – seeking to understand the personal issues that led his desperate employee to take from him – then determine ways he could help.
I have never forgotten that incredible display of compassion.
Ultimately, Big John found his way into local politics – serving an impressive (and always colorful) twelve-years on the Volusia County Council, including one term as Council Chair – during an incredibly productive period which saw the modernization of the Daytona Beach International Airport, creation of the Ocean Center, and other important civic accomplishments.
As a continuation of his public service, the community affairs forum “Big Talk with Big John” premiered on WEDG-FM beginning as a Saturday morning talk show before moving to WELE-AM.
In 2009, Big John took ownership of WELE, later generously donating the radio station to Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
GovStuff Live! served our community as “an educational, informational, inspirational local forum” the perfect medium that allowed Big John to fulfil his passion for the study, analysis, and teaching of local government – a tireless champion of We, The Little People – always providing his entertaining and informative take on the prominent issues of the day.
To his credit, regardless of whether he agreed with a guest’s position, in all the years I listened and learned, not once did I ever hear Big John come off rude or aggressive on the air – always hyper-protective of anyone who participated in the forum.
In addition to his long-suffering producer, Larry Steele, Big John’s eclectic cadre of regular contributors included an esteemed retired United States Ambassador, former elected officials, medical professionals, political candidates, civic activists, philanthropists, animal rights advocates, horticulturists, small business owners, government officials, respected members of the legal community, Sheriff Mike Chitwood, Jeffrey Boyle, who so valiantly kept things moving in Big’s recent absence, and an ever-expanding cast of colorful characters who regularly called-in to add their unique take.
Recently, Big and I spoke about the importance of always “reinventing” oneself – finding purpose once retirement replaces professional pursuits. Thanks to his encouragement, this blogsite, along with my monthly appearances on GovStuff Live!, gave a renewed meaning to my life – something I did not think possible when I finished a career spanning over three-decades in public service.
I am forever grateful that Big John gave Barker’s View a larger voice.
In my view, the incomparable Big John represented the quintessence of community service – giving selflessly, striving again-and-again to right wrongs, expose the phonies and absurdity, speaking truth to power, unraveling the mysteries, and bringing a greater understanding of the often-insulated world of local government.
He loathed the stench of lies in the public discourse and took pleasure in deflating the pomposity that often accompanies politics and those who practice it. . .
As those endowed with pure genius often are, Big John could be cantankerous, irreverent, acerbic, opinionated, egoistic, with a larger-than-life personality.
He had sharp elbows, always challenging the official narrative, and he didn’t suffer fools – with an incredibly sharp mind, quick wit, and well-honed ability to see through the murk and mire to find that kernel of truth that escaped the rest of us.
We desperately need more like him.
This wonderfully complex personality – this icon of Volusia County – a deep thinker and dedicated doer who enriched our community with his remarkable insight and deep understanding “passed on to glory” (as Big liked to say) this morning, joining his beloved “Sweetie” in that place where great souls receive their reward.
In a 1998 “man behind the name” article in the Orlando Sentinel, Big said that he wanted “…to be remembered not as the guy with the funny name and the blue work shirt, but someone who made Volusia a better place to live.”
Mission accomplished, my friend.
Your wisdom, insight, mentorship, and friendship to so many will be missed, immeasurably.