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A spiritual link with historian

Billy White, an authority on Rock Hill history, called to say that Douglas Summers Brown had died in Lynchburg, Va.

Mrs. Brown lived in Rock Hill in the late 1940s and early 1950s while her husband was minister at First Presbyterian. She was 104.

My connection to Douglas Summers Brown was literary -- and perhaps spiritual. Let me explain:

Several years ago, during the run-up to Rock Hill's 150th anniversary, I agreed to help produce a new local history. Several books had appeared in the interim, but the definitive account, "City Without Cobwebs," had been published in conjunction with the Rock Hill Centennial. It was one of two local histories Douglas Summers wrote. The other, "People of the River," was about the Catawba Indian Nation.

Early on, I discovered that Mrs. Brown was living in a nursing home in Lynchburg but that she was deaf and would be unavailable for a telephone interview. I got the address and wrote to her, describing our intentions. Her response came in a short note, wishing us well but explaining that her research materials had been donated to Winthrop.

'The Good Town'

It would be more than a year before I again attempted to communicate. In the meantime, the Rock Hill Sesquicentennial Committee was fortunate to contract with an accomplished historical writer, Lynn Willoughby, Ph.D., to write the new community history. Willoughby, herself a former Winthrop history professor, was between books. She and her husband had homes in North Carolina and Georgia but she welcomed the chance to visit Rock Hill and renew old acquaintances.

The resulting book, "The Good Town Does Well: Rock Hill, S.C., 1852-2002," would receive considerable acclaim. (Five years later, few of the original 3,200 copies remain in local bookstores.)

Although I owned a reprint of "City Without Cobwebs," I wanted an original copy. Several Rock Hill natives told me they would be happy to give me their copy -- if only they could find it, which they never could. Eventually, I turned to the Internet, checking Web sites that specialized in out-of-print books. The least expensive I located was described as having a broken binding. The next best buy was from a dealer in New York state, which listed a book with a flyleaf inscription. I ordered it.

Imagine my surprise a few days later when, upon opening the cover and finding this inscription: "For my 'baby brother,' Andrew Summers ... The author, Christmas 1953."

I immediately wrote Mrs. Brown, not knowing whether, at age 99, she would comprehend the coincidence I wanted to share, or even whether she was still alive.

After receiving no response, I put the matter aside. By then, Lynn Willoughby was deep in the throes of writing, editing and rewriting Rock Hill's new history.

Months later, after the obligatory round of book signings, Lynn and I signed the flyleaf of a copy "Good Town." We composed a note to Mrs. Brown, thanking her for her history, which was both a starting point and inspiration for our book.

After not having heard from her following my most recent note, I admit to not having any great confidence I would get a response this time.

A response

Within a few days, however, I received a hand-written note with a return address of Lynchburg. The script, which appeared to have come from an unsteady hand, was legible. Mrs. Brown had composed a gracious thank you for the book.

She also reflected warmly about the years that she and her late husband, the Rev. Henry Dockery Brown, had lived here. She stated that among the various towns where they had lived during his long ministry, Rock Hill may have been her favorite. She also recalled many good times and close friends, especially one couple, Bernard and Marie Craig.

A chill ran up my spine. I was reading her letter while standing in the kitchen of the house where we had lived for more than 15 years. Our house, built in 1938, originally had been owned by the Craig family. No doubt, Douglas Summers Brown had stood in the same spot decades earlier.

I told my wife: "The Presbyterians are noted for their doctrine of Predestination, ... even though we're Catholics, I think they're on to something."