Obituary: Peter Brown / Physicist never let circumstance dictate life
May 28, 1939 - Aug. 9, 2013
August 14, 2013 4:00 AM
By Alex Zimmerman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Brown admired the heroes of the science fiction stories he read.
At first, that meant he wanted to be an astronaut but because of his poor vision, that wasn't an option.
The next best move: physicist.
Known for his exuberance and booming laugh, Mr. Brown wasn't easily disappointed by accidents of circumstance.
When Soviet-era science funding started to dry up and it looked like he would lose his physics professorship at Duquesne University, he got an MBA there and started teaching business students about statistics and information systems.
After he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999, his frequent trips to Hillman Cancer Center gave him an opportunity to start volunteering his tech-savvy talents.
"When he found out about [the lymphoma], he really made a decision in his life that he wasn't going to sweat the small stuff," said his daughter, Alicia Angemeer.
He died Friday of complications related to pneumonia after battling a form of preleukemia. He was 74.
Born to working-class parents in Buffalo, N.Y., Mr. Brown grew up in a world where education wasn't part of the culture.
"Nobody in his family even knew what it was like to go to college," said Ms. Angemeer, 43, of the North Side.
A bachelor's degree in physics from Canisius College and a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from the University of Pittsburgh changed that.
Pittsburgh wasn't just the city where he would meet his wife, Jacqueline Brown, it was the place where he forged a close-knit group friends who lived together and called themselves "The Darragh Street Denizens."
"One day, probably after too many beers, someone came up with the name," Leonard Goldman, a member of the group, recalled.
A house of seven physics graduate students without much money was fertile ground for high jinks.
Mr. Goldman, 72 , said on one occasion the six housemates were trying to get Mr. Brown to stop studying and grab a drink, but they couldn't get him to leave his graduate student office.
"We poured lighter fluid under the door and lit it. We said 'Pete you have to come out drinking because we have the fire extinguisher,'" he said.
"We're also physicists, we knew it's not gasoline -- it's not that hot."
His love for beer only grew, Mr. Goldman said. He joked that he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Wisconsin at Madison "because they serve beer in the commons."
Mr. Brown enjoyed Church Brew Works so much that he asked his family to incorporate it into his funeral arrangements.
"Beer was his life," Mr. Goldman said.
His first job was for Bettis, a nuclear offshoot of Westinghouse, before spending nearly 30 years at Duquesne before retiring in 2005.
Mr. Brown was attracted to Duquesne because it allowed him to focus on teaching and build relationships with his students, Ms. Angemeer said.
His daughter recalled he found goofball solutions to problems, in a way that only a physics professor could.
Like the time he returned to his house to stuff his coat with newspapers for insulation in the middle of winter.
"It made sense, but it was like 'why didn't you just come in and put on another coat?"' Ms. Angemeer said. "He could come up with an efficient solution that wasn't aesthetically pleasing."
Mr. Brown is also survived by his wife and a brother, Herbert Brown, of Clarence, N.Y.
A committal service will be held at 10:30 a.m. today at the St. Augustine Cemetery chapel, 250 Wible Run Road, Shaler.
The family suggests donations in his memory to either Duquesne University or to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.