On May 3rd, 2022, the body of Ralph Brown, along with his car, was pulled from the Willamette River at Rogers Landing Park in Newberg, Oregon. He was found almost a year after leaving his Cornelius, Oregon home. His wife Carol tried to stop him from driving as he was beginning to struggle with Sundowners Syndrome and no longer had a license.
“I’m going home,” Ralph told Carol. “To my other home.”
Carol tried to stop her husband and reason with him but was unable to convince him he that he was already home. As evening came to their home of 50 years, the man who was the love of her life, a wonderful Father, Grand Father, and community leader, drove off into the night. That was the last time Carol or anyone else, as far as we all know, would see Ralph Brown alive. Driven by the firestorm in his memories and brain, Mr. Brown drove South looking for something. The family acted, trying to find him and calling his cell phone.
A couple of hours after, he picked up a call from his daughter Laurie Saunders. Ralph spoke to his daughter briefly. “Are people looking for me? You’re looking for me, aren’t you?” Saunders, who lives on the East coast, assured her Dad that they were looking for him and that he needed to answer the phone from his Son, Daryle, who would call him right back. She called her brother in Beaverton and told him to call Ralph so he could coordinate finding the former Mayor of Cornelius. Daryle repeatedly called, but his Father never would answer.
At that point, the search for Ralph Brown officially began. As the days ahead unfolded, the family received news that his cell phone pings had placed him in an area near in McMinnville and then in Newberg, Oregon. Washington County law enforcement worked with the family, as did family, friends, and community members. Within a few days, hundreds of volunteers would search all over Newberg and every road and backroad between Cornelius and there. Ralph went to college in Monmouth and Corvallis. He was raised in Astoria, which he stayed connected to his whole life. He also liked the beach, so every road and path to all of these places were checked by the army of searchers.
Which “Home” was Ralph trying to return to? Where was this “other home” that he was so determined to get to? Carol and the family held tight to their faith as the days and weeks played out.
For my part, I had to act as well. Ralph was a counselor of mine at East Jr High (now R.A. Brown Jr. High) and was a considerable influence in my life. We set up the Find Ralph Davis Brown Of Oregon Facebook Page, which became a central hub of search information with over 4,000 followers. Searches were done everywhere that a report came from of a sighting or a clue. People from every walk of life got involved. During that time, offers came to the Facebook Page from all sorts of experts, psychics, remote viewers, etc. An agreement was made with the family to filter these offers and work with Ralph’s longtime school support staff and friend Sue Fleskes. After many calls and offers, one came in that would change the outcome of the Ralph Brown search and story; more on that in a moment.
A major search was orchestrated shortly after Ralph disappeared in Newberg, where at least 150 supporters and searchers came to scour the woods, the parks, and the areas closest to where Ralph’s phone was tracked before it died that night. One of the focus areas of that search was Rogers Park. The park sits on the Willamette River and has several spots a car could enter the water, including a boat ramp. Four searchers with drones joined me along the waterfront. We flew up and down the river looking for broken trees, tire marks, entry signs, and Ralph’s car. Despite being able to see 6 to 10 feet into the water, we saw nothing in particular after searching 3 miles of shoreline. All the inland searches came up empty too.
That weekend we witnessed teams of 3 to 10 people head off semi-coordinated fashion into every back road, brushy area, creek bed, and into homeless camps and possible hiding places. Theories ran wild. Was he parked in town? Was he hiding from us and playing a big game of hide and seek? One lady said she saw him in Herbert Hoover Park, a large team and the drones were dispatched there. Another said a man looking like him was in a different park walking in his socks. A team went there. This pattern repeated itself all weekend, and we witnessed no fewer than 100 people searching and handing out flyers. The town of Newberg was blanketed. But Ralph was not there. As the weekend ended, our hearts were aching, but our spirits were full. Why were all these people here? How had this man met and influenced so many? Something bigger…much bigger than we could understand was happening, and I only got a glimpse of it.
His Life Created Connections
Ralph left a wide path in his life, cutting through western Washington County like a freight train of community energy. A career educator and Principal in Hillsboro Schools, the City of Cornelius activist and Mayor, City of Forest Grove School Board Member, sports coach, runner, golfer, church member, and friend to all- this man was a dynamo. In his hometown, Brown was instrumental in adding an elementary school and the Virginia Garcia Medical Center to the town when growth came, and services were lacking. Carol and Ralph founded Cornelius Kids, the area’s first youth sports program. This explains the number of people from a variety of backgrounds who came together to help find him.
Back to the search
A man named Jared Leisek called me to tell me that his group, Adventures With Purpose, wanted to lend their resources and help to the search. He touted his YouTube channel with a Million subscribers and their successes. At that time, it was hard to realize that this man and his partner Doug Bishop would resolve this case. I took his number and passed it along to the family. Within a few days, a connection was made, and it was back to Rogers Park where the group did a deep search and after hours, they made it clear that Ralph was not in that water.
Days turned into weeks which turned into months. The team and searchers went off to Sandy and Silver Falls and then Mulino, where two people were sure they saw him. The search there raised the attention of the locals, and a dozen people from there helped others scour the entire area. Three days later, a man matching his description was found walking outside of town, but it was not Ralph. Again the story of his missing person status drew people in.
More weeks and months, and the trail cooled. Traffic at the Facebook page wained, as did the tips. Law enforcement advised the family and was as diligent as they could be. The news tracked the story, but eventually, they cooled too. No one forgot, but the situation became one of waiting for the phone to ring. Finally, on May 3rd, we got the news that Jared and the Adventures with purpose crew were back at Rogers Landing and had found a car upside down in 30 feet of water under some logs and branches. It was just 100 feet downstream from the boat ramp. As the minutes and hours ticked off, if was confirmed that the car was a blue Nissan Sentra which was a 100% match for Ralph’s car. Hours later, it was confirmed that Mr. Ralph Brown was inside; he was finally coming home. Leisek and crew never gave up and on their own decided it was time for another look and this time they found our guy.
Here is the Ralph Brown Story on AVP. The search they are now coining as their most dangerous recovery ever. This video is quite moving, and you will see his car being hauled out of the river as you watch. It is very, very moving.
Jared and Doug had a feeling and were desperate to close the search; that is exactly what they did. No one can ever quantify this in terms of what it means. They made closure possible for the family and allowed Ralph to come home.
Was This Ralph’s Ultimate Plan?
Last night as I attended the Celebration of Life in Harleman Park. So did about 400 others. Carol, Laurie, Daryle, and the grandkids were all there. Looking across the vast sea of people who had come to pay their respects, I realized this was exactly what Ralph had wanted. He never meant for anyone to suffer while the search went on. But he knew that people would be brought together for that purpose and, in doing so, would become closer. New connections were made. New friendships were forged and old ones renewed. Families unified in their commitment to helping find him and help to bring him home.
During the search, it became clear that Oregon’s Silver Alert had never been fully activated despite a bill being passed in 2015. State Senator Janeen Sollman, who represents our district, made sure to champion Ralph during recent rule-making, and now, when someone goes missing, it will only take a law enforcement phone call to get the reader boards across the State lit up with information. Getting Ralph’s Missing person information up on those boards took weeks. Never again, now the rules are updated. Another great outcome of this incident.
Ralph was going to his “other home.” He was going to his ultimate home in the great beyond, and Carol and the family are sure he is with his maker, who planned this entire outcome the way it has gone. I looked across all of those faces last night and heard the testimony of his family and others. The Pastor from the church that Carol and Ralph attended emplored the crowd to send up a cheer to Ralph with the chant “Welcome Home Ralph.” As the echos of that yalp went into the beyond, it became clear. Ralph had gone to his other home and was also home with all of us. In one sense, he was home in heaven and also here with his community.
Community was so important to Ralph. He spent a large amount of his time away from home building community because he saw a way to make everyone feel included and a part of the greater world. He wanted everyone to feel at home in their community. A counselor to students like me, Ralph also plied that skill set to his lived environments so that he could make the world a better place.
We will never know what was going through Ralph’s mind as his car nosed into the green and dark waters of the Willamette. Meagan is certain he was just lost and did not realize in the dark that night that he was headed for trouble. As the car sank, we can never know nor experience all he was thinking and feeling. But they say we see our life flash before our eyes when we go. Certainly, the review he received on his way up was something to behold.
Last night we saw Ralph Brown’s ultimate act of community building. He wanted us to look for and find him, to grow and learn that each other is all we have in the end. He wanted us to know that Community and coming together is the most powerful thing we can do. Last night Ralph Brown came home to us and it was the Ultimate act of Community.
Rest In Peace, you very good man.
Stay tuned for more photos and videos from the service, which I will upload on Monday.